The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



‘Nightmare Alley’: a riveting neo-noir horror thriller

| Friday, January 14, 2022

Claire Reid | The Observer

Horror cinema has an inexplicable connection to carnivals. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” established the trope and classics such as “Freaks,” “The Man Who Laughs” and “Carnival of Souls” cemented its status as a horror staple that spans across decades of horror cinema. Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is a spectacular new addition to the long lineage of carnival horror films and adds a new twist to the subgenre along the way.

“Nightmare Alley” follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) who joins a carnival to escape from his past. He befriends a number of the performers and discovers the darkness that lingers just beneath the surface of the performances. Stanton eventually joins a mentalist act and learns how to fool people into thinking he is a psychic. He falls in love with another performer named Molly (Rooney Mara) and the two leave the carnival to start their own show. Stanton and Molly start a successful act in New York City which earns them the attention of New York’s elite. With the help of the popular psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), the trio begins to swindle the rich by having Stanton pose as a medium.

While this is not Del Toro’s best film, it is still an incredible piece of filmmaking. If it were made by any other filmmaker, would certainly go down as their masterpiece. Del Toro is a master filmmaker and his skills as both an artist and a storyteller are on full display here. “Nightmare Alley” features an engrossing plot, Oscar-worthy performances and brilliant cinematography. Of course, all of these things are what I have come to expect from any film with Del Toro in the director’s chair. His unique eye for visuals gives “Nightmare Alley” a unique Art Deco visual flair that is rarely seen today.

Every frame is stunning, the colors are rich and vibrant and the always engrossing yet never intrusive camera movements showcase both Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s unique visual sensibilities. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film’s visuals is the Film Noir inspired cinematography and lighting design. While Film Noir is usually associated with black and white films, “Nightmare Alley” manages to balance striking colors and Film Noir stylistic sensibilities to an amazing effect.

The characters are truly what makes “Nightmare Alley” special. Del Toro is allowed to deeply explore Stanton Carlisle’s slow rise and fall over the course of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. We watch as the seemingly well-intentioned, bright-eyed drifter we met in the film’s first few minutes is slowly revealed to be a heartless conman whose hubris is ultimately his downfall. Of course, there is no other way Stanton’s story could end other than in tragedy, we are not meant to like this character and we know from the start that he cannot escape the fate that has been chosen for him.

Bradley Cooper shines as Stanton Carlisle, bringing a kind of humanity to the role, an every-man suaveness that makes the audience fall under Stanton’s spell. I think this may be Cooper’s best performance to date. Even though we are meant to hate Stanton by the end of the film, we still feel pity for him. It hurts us to see what happens to Stanton. There are some fates worse than death; Stanton — unfortunately — is destined for one of them from the start.

Guillermo Del Toro has once again crafted a film that stands above everything else at the time of its release. “Nightmare Alley” is unlike anything out right now and I doubt we’ll see anything like it anytime soon. “Nightmare Alley” is the best slow-burn thriller I’ve seen in a long time. Do yourself and favor and see it as soon as possible on the biggest screen you can.


Title: “Nightmare Alley”

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett

Directors: Guillermo Del Toro

Genre: Thriller, Noir, Horror

If you like: “Nightmare Alley” (1947), “Freaks,” “Crimson Peak”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

Tags: , , , , ,

About Justin George

Video Unit Leader. Scene's Resident Spooky Boi. My taste is better than yours: https://letterboxd.com/JWG5150/

Contact Justin