‘Nightmare Alley’ – not as disturbing a movie as its title

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Turn Guillermo del Toro loose in a neo-noir carnival and, visually at least, you get pretty much what you expect: a gorgeously lurid montage of everything from a pickled baby fetus to a howling geek who bites the heads off of live chickens.

What you don’t get, alas, is an emotionally involving film, a surprising misstep from a director who sold us on a love affair between a vulnerable mute and a kindly sea monster.

A scene from “Nightmare Alley”

That picture, “The Shape of Water,” won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. His new effort, “Nightmare Alley,” is unlikely to be as lucky.

However, if there were an Oscar for evocative titles, “Nightmare Alley” might win hands down. Based on a 1946 novel that was turned into a 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power, del Toro’s picture takes full advantage of all the sensationalized weirdness we’ve come to associate with most circus-set movies. Think, “Something Wicked this Way Comes” and, of course, the mother of all sensationally weird movies, “Freaks.”

A game but underwhelming Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, a drifter decked out like a bargain-basement Indiana Jones (It’s the ’40s, so this makes some sort of sense, I guess). Drawn to a low-rent traveling circus by its one dash of glamor (a Ferris wheel lit up against an ominous night sky), Stan is taken in by a couple (Toni Collette and David Strathairn) who do a mind-reading act. They teach him the tricks of the trade – a combo of memorized code words and an ability to read their marks. People are desperate to tell you who they are, they maintain.

The handsome, charismatic stan turns out to be a natural. Before long, he and Molly (Rooney Mara), a pretty, young thing who does an act called “The Electric Girl,” take off on their own. As it turns out, the well-heeled are as eager to be duped as anyone else and the pair are soon doing their act in evening dress.

Poster of “Nightmare Alley”

That’s when Stan meets Lilith (Cate Blanchett,), a sleek, sexy psychotherapist, whose job gives her access to the secrets of the socially prominent. Ignoring the one rule his former mentors gave him – don’t get involved with a “spooky show,” ie, anything that pretends to reach out to the dead – Stan and Lilith plot to scam a rich but guilt-ridden businessman (Richard Jenkins ).

Given del Toro’s reputation for handling the macabre, “Nightmare Alley” should add up to something a great deal more disturbing than it does. There are some undeniably creepy moments and the whole thing looks amazing. But we’re never compelled to enter this overly-art-designed world. Maybe that’s because, despite his reputation for being drawn to the gruesome (“Pan’s Labyrinth” anyone?), del Toro is, deep down, more a romantic than a cynic. He knows there’s no happy ending here. So, he pours on the atmosphere and lets the characters fend for themselves.

As a result, the one thing “Nightmare Alley” lacks, well, a nightmare. And despite all the showmanship on view, it makes a difference. It’s like finding out the bearded lady, while she may have an impressive-looking beard, doesn’t really need to shave.

“Nightmare Alley” is showing in theaters, and it is also available on HBO Max.

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