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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Nightmare Alley’: an exercise in del Toro’s demons

Dan Webster

Above: Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper star in "Nightmare Alley." (Photo/Searchlight Pictures)

Movie review: "Nightmare Alley," directed by Guillermo del Toro, starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins.

Mexican-born filmmaker Guillermo del Toro loves creatures. From his first full-length feature, 1993’s “Cronos” to his 2017 Oscar-winning film “The Shape of Water,” he has told stories that in one way or another involve insects or vampires or demons from hell – and sometimes all at once.

Why he does this is anyone’s guess. Who can understand the deep-set motivations that drive any of us? Maybe del Toro explained it best when he was quoted as saying, “The underground of the city is like what's underground in people. Beneath the surface, it's boiling with monsters.”

The best version of this obsession came, arguably, in his 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a story that sets a young girl’s experiences with a fantastical underworld against the ravages of the Spanish Civil War. “Pan’s Labyrinth” won three Academy Awards, though not the one it should have – for Best Foreign Language Film, which went to Germany’s “The Lives of Others.”

Now we have “Nightmare Alley,” a film now streaming on HBO Max that del Toro adapted from a 1946 novel by the American writer William Lindsay Gresham. Previously adapted for a 1947 black-and-white feature starring Tyrone Power, Gresham’s darkly themed story as directed by Edmund Goulding was one of the great noir studies of its era.

As envisioned by del Toro, with the screenplay assistance of Kim Morgan, this new “Nightmare Alley” is still set in the same time period – just before and during the first few years of World War II – and the overall theme is just as dark. But del Toro, as is his habit, opts for lush-if-darkly-hued colors set against a set design that ranges from the grimy confines of a traveling carny camp to the chic sophistication of an upscale psychologist’s office.

The story follows one Stan (later Stanton) Carlisle (played by Bradley Cooper), who when we first meet him is hauling around a bundled corpse and burning both it and the house in which he has stashed it. This is a scene that the movie continually returns to, each time adding to its meaning as it relates both to Stan himself and the story overall.

By chance, Stan comes upon a traveling carny, one of those trashy affairs that features freaks of all kinds, from the familiar ones – such as Bruno the World’s Strongest Man (played by Ron Perlman) and the clairvoyant Madame Zeena (played by Toni Collette) – to the more perverted one known as the geek (played at one point by Paul Anderson, he being the guy who lives in a cage and kills and eats chickens). The geek, by the way, is being kept by Clem (played by Willem Dafoe), the carny owner, who also – again, typical of del Toro – maintains a collection of dead things pickled in jars.

Stan signs on and, gradually, becomes close to Madame Zeena and her partner, Pete (played by David Strathairn). It is Pete who teaches Stan the tricks of a sham psychic but who, in a predictable foreshadowing, warns him not to use them with people who want to contact their dead loved ones, a practice Pete terms the “Spook Show.” Stan eventually develops a thing for another carny trouper Molly (played by Rooney Mara) and, asd his confidence grows, he convinces Molly to leave with him.

And soon he is headlining as a quote-unquote mentalist, attracting tempting offers from rich people, and he is approached during one of his shows by a mysterious woman who turns out to be the psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett). She, in turn, leads him to some of those wealthy patrons, including the nefarious Ezra Grindle (played by Richard Jenkins). At a certain point, what happens next comes as no real surprise, “Nightmare Alley” being no Disney production. There won’t be, there can’t be a happy ending.

Still, other than the predictability – and maybe Blanchett’s too-obvious performance as the obligatory femme fatale – del Toro keeps things moving well enough throughout his film’s two-and-a-half-hour run. Cooper, who is in virtually every scene, carries the film as a convincing Stan. And if nothing else, everything – thanks to cinematographer Dan Laustsen – looks good.

How you react to “Nightmare Alley,” ultimately, may depend on how willing you are to delve into writer Gresham’s dark world. Not to mention how much you might have in common with del Toro’s obsessions.