Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley promises a terrifying time, but are its horrors really horror or something more mundane?
Guillermo del Toro remake trailers alley of nightmares tick all the boxes for horror movies. Dark shadows, haunting laughter, and an ominous sense of dread all promise a macabre experience. Although the movie contains all of these elements, viewers may wonder if it is actually a horror movie. Break down the elements of alley of nightmares can address not only that, but also the disconnect between del Toro’s work and the genre he is most associated with.
Based on a 1946 novel that was first adapted into a 1947 film, alley of nightmares is the Stanton Carlisle story of Bradley Cooper, a promising carnival worker. He extracts the secrets of being a fake mind reader from the Carnival’s resident medium and quickly passes himself off as a high-end psychic for an affluent clientele. He grows bolder when he meets a corrupt psychologist and tries to pass himself off as an intermediary between the living and the dead by using her info on her clients. What follows goes about as well as one would expect.
On the surface, this bears all the hallmarks of the genre. The characters apparently interact with the supernatural as part of their job description and claim to have access to the afterlife. Bizarre acts of violence unfold on dark nights. The carnivals they work at look like hellscapes saturated with labyrinths built around the seven deadly sins and pickled oddities in jars alongside the tragic but disturbing “geek.” The entire cast increases the creep factor in their performance. Extras even get in on the act, some dressed as cast members of the legendary 1932 horror film Monsters in the final scene. All this seems to suggest that alley of nightmares is del Toro’s latest horror creation – except it’s not.
The film lacks many key elements of a typical horror film. Most glaring is the absence of the supernatural. The film goes out of its way to explain that the skills of Carlisle and his fellow carnival workers are mundane and based on deception and sleight of hand. The only exception is tarot cards, with characters placing a lot of weight on their ominous predictions. However, these card tricks are treated more as omens than a sign of a world populated by monsters. The only demons glimpsed in the film are cardboard.
Of course, some horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Thesilenceofthelambs or the above Monsters still qualify as such although it is completely banal. However, while Leatherface or Hannibal Lecter may be human, their constant willingness to kill and hunt down other people is inhuman. Scripts may have symbolic stories to them, but their inner life is basically unknowable. Same Monsters — perhaps unfortunately – follows this pattern. Despite the empathy with the sideshow workers, the film presents their ultimate revenge against their attackers as both cruel and scientifically implausible.
In alley of nightmares, the audience is fully aware of the actions of Stanton Carlisle and others throughout. Nothing is unknowable as the tricks behind every aspect, from divination to tricking carnival performers into being “geeks”, are explained in detail. Even Carlisle’s many adversaries explain why they do what they do with their twisted logic. Cate Blanchett’s Lilith Ritter may confuse Carlisle at first, but all of his plans are eventually revealed. Their criminal stabbings and shadowy violence are far more typical of pulp novels and 1940s noir crime films, much like its previous incarnations.
This isn’t del Toro’s first time directing a horror-adjacent film. In fact, although closely associated with the genre, he hasn’t made a proper horror movie since coming to Hollywood. Blade II, Hellboy, Pans Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and The shape of water can strike a lot like horror titles but most often borrow from genres as diverse as superheroes, fantasy, war and romance. Del Toro has too much empathy for the “monsters” in his film to allow audiences to fear them. His need to get under their skin more often than not reveals their inner heroism. The violence in his work is caused by military captains, government agents, and wealthy elites, not fish-men or the son of Satan.
This is what makes his films a marketing department’s worst nightmare. They can promote alley of nightmares like a dark horror experience, but the film itself goes into far too much detail about its unfolding to deliver the expected thrills. Its detailed schemes and realistic violence place it squarely in the crime genre. But its hellish atmosphere and treacherous twists convey the same message as its other films: the darkness in human hearts is far scarier than the mythical monsters of the imagination.
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