Nightmare Detour (How del Toro’s Version of “Nightmare Alley” Doesn’t Quite Get Us There)

Having long been familiar with Edmund Goulding’s original 1947 Nightmare Alley, and recently read William Lindsay Gresham’s original 1946 novel, my reaction to Guillermo del Toro’s recent remake is nonplussed disappointment. I didn’t hate it to the degree that I did such things as Burlesque, Oz The Great and Powerful, or The Greatest Showman, all of which I walked out on, but it was a similar feeling of seeing something I cared about being grossly mishandled. As it happens, I watched the new Nightmare Alley on Hulu but had I been in a theatre, I probably would not have left early; I was too curious about how the director would handle the book’s rapey ending, and del Toro’s movie is far from valueless, it’s just full of dubious choices that sap the tale of its explosive potential.

Of the the three experiences, reading the novel is by far the most rewarding. It’s now one of my favorite books, a sneaky masterpiece whose literary legederdemain frequently bursts the bounds of pulp to take us to places profound, thought provoking, resonant, and moving (if also chilling). It is a portrait of a soulless drifter which inspires the same kind of armchair psychoanalyzing the nation engaged in about its 45th President. Malignant narcissist? Psychopath? Damaged goods confronting childhood demons? Just a resourceful guy trying to play the hand he’s dealt? (I’ll worry about you if you chose the last one). At the same time, the whole apparatus works as a cynical metaphor for America itself, a place where even “respectable” fields like religion and psychiatry and big business are seen as just rackets, corrupt dodges, different only in scale but not in kind from the carny wheezes our main character engages in on his upward climb from mud shows to sophisticated night clubs to full-on mediumship cons. The original film with Tyrone Power is an admirable adaptation: economical, well-crafted, and retentive of many of the book’s best qualities, including snatches of Gresham’s exquisite dialogue. Due to the Production Code, there are some alterations, but in the scheme of things, they don’t mar the experience per se, although one is naturally curious about what it would be like to address the missing bits given present-day freedoms.

Unfortunately, this new version proves to be “less than” the original source material. Co-written by Del Toro and film critic Kim Morgan (who is also his wife), this reincarnation is almost perverse in its refusal to include anything that works or is meaningful about the original story, and its insistence on replacing it with personal touches that sap its power. At its heart, Nightmare Alley is a story about lies and the lying liars who lie them, whether for profit, or psychological advantage, or the pure pleasure of the grift. It’s about capitalism at its most colorful. But del Toro is a SPIRITUAL guy. His horror films to date have all been of the supernatural sort, and their power has rested in his ability to seduce us into the world of belief with the dreamlike power of his visuals. He has called Nightmare Alley his first non-supernatural film but there are several moments when he can’t seem to resist, as when David Strathairn’s aging mentalist claims that his act (based on a Zancig Code) can lead to ACTUAL revelations, or scenes where it is implied that a pickled punk with a third eye is malevolently driving the action, or the many bits where it seems like the circus geek is an actual monster of some sort. It might have been quite enjoyable if he had expanded threads like that to their logical conclusions, but instead he drops them, and we are left with something that is neither fish nor fowl.

It really seems like a case of the wrong director for the material. Frequent del Toro star Ron Perlman (who plays the strong man Bruno in the film) is said to have given him a copy of the novel 30 years ago, and it sort of feels like that. Like it was not his OWN inspiration, but an experiment outside his own comfort zone, outside his own themes. The result is neither his nor Gresham’s visions, but a very muddy mish-mash. Del Toro’s main point of interest seems to be the visuals, yet somehow those aren’t spectacular either, ranging from an EXTREMELY grimy carnival midway to second and third acts that look like rehashes of the sets from the 1946 film. At the same time, the dialogue has drastically been rewritten, changing Gresham’s sparkling and memorable (almost canonical) lines to much more quotidian and obvious hash. Worse, del Toro and Morgan seem to have a penchant for popping every balloon, for removing all tension with very on-the-nose, expository dialogue that kill scenes and the arc of the entire movie. Instead of suspiciously guarding their professional secrets, every character rushes to tip their hand, spill their guts, give the game away. Not only is there no suspense, but there’s also no plausibility.

As for one of our main lures for seeing the film, the cast and their performances, neither is that aspect a slam dunk. As the main character, Bradley Cooper is both twice too old (whereas Power had only been a decade too old), and oddly somnambulistic. It’s his story, but as directed (or non-directed) here, he is beyond a cipher, he is a zombie. There is NO interior life for us to try to figure out, he’s a mannequin. Yes, I know the character is a liar, a very good liar, but there’s not even THAT going on. We see neither truth, nor lie, nor charming performance, nor nothing. He is a suit of clothes. I’m not joking. It’s like watching a lot of people pass around a suit of clothes, like that overcoat in Tales of Manhattan. Leo DiCaprio was the original choice for the part, and while he is exactly the same age as Cooper, which is to say too old by a generation, with his expressive eyes he’d almost certainly have been much better in the role. Also disappointing was the reduction of Toni Collette’s part as Zena the Fortune Teller. I adore Collette and she’s as good in the role as Joan Blondell had been, if slightly miscast, but for whatever reason, del Toro cut her crucial part in the plot to the barebones, in favor of exploring Cooper’s relationships with Willem Defoe as a carnival boss, the very well cast Strathairn as the drunken mentalist, and scene after scene after scene with Paul Anderson as the Geek. Thanks to the Code, we didn’t get to see the geek at all in the original screen version. In this one, he’s practically Richard III, onstage the whole time. There’s a happy medium! (Ha! I said “medium”). Not at all surprisingly, Cate Blanchett, who can do wrong in my eyes, lights up the screen as the double dealing society shrink, and only when she came into it did I really sit up and pay attention. I also enjoyed Richard Jenkins as the troubled millionaire and Holt McCallany as his hired thug. Rooney Mara, as the con man’s stage partner and wife, was an even bigger non-entity than Cooper was (check out Coleen Gray in the original to see how it’s done).

Kudoes to del Toro though for getting this film made at all in the middle of the Covid pandemic. I enjoyed aspects of some of the visuals even if the storytelling is fakakta. Especially rewarding to sideshow fans will be the presence of Mark Povinelli as the little person Major Mosquito (a character in the book who was cut from the ’47 version), Dian Bachar as Fee Fee the Birdgirl, and Mike Hill as Dogboy Jojo. Although I am a little disappointed that del Toro used a gaffed dogboy, given that his home country of Mexico is also the native land of the Aceves, the world’s hairiest family. And we happen to know (and have presented) an ACTUAL bird girl, Australia’s Sarah Houbolt. Not casting people like these seems like a lost opportunity. Which only goes to reinforce our point — not everyone understands the sideshow.

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