MEXICO CITY – The first shot we see in Nightmare Alley is a house burning to the ground. Inside, there’s something covered that certainly looks human. The next shot is a man walking away from said house.
The film is based on the 1946 book with the same name by Lindsay Graham. The story takes place in a circus, which fits perfectly with director Guillermo del Toro, whose imagination often, if not always, points to the strangest corners of the world.
When the protagonist Stan Carlisle arrives, he immediately turns to the freak show. He watches a sort-of human creature devouring a live chicken in a pit surrounded by a cheering, disgusted crowd.
Stan is hired that night to find the freak who has just escaped from his cage. He finds him curled up in the horror house repeating to himself, “I’m not like this.”
Then Clem, the circus owner, explains to Stan that he seeks out miserable men who are unable to shake their addictions and lures them to take a job where they have a place to stay and food. That’s how he gets his freaks.
All the freaks and individuals in the carnival are condemned, and they live to suffer. It is spectacular what these folks are capable of, but their world is saturated with darkness and that qualifies the movie as film noir. There’s someone in every corner, and these people find a community there. Del Toro respects and loves making movies about monsters.
With his charm and good looks, Stan lands a job at the circus and becomes an apprentice to Peter, a mentalist, and lover to Peter’s wife, Zeena. Pete warns Stan to never use his newly learned ability to pretend to talk to the dead.
After learning all Pete’s tricks and accidentally killing him, Stan runs away with Molly, a fellow performer. They become a performance duo for clubs of rich people in Buffalo.
One night they meet a strange woman in a show who is so insistent on humiliating them that Stan decides to embarrass her in front of the audience. Stan learns that she is the psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, and she was hired by a wealthy man, Judge Kimball, to try to expose the act.
Nightmare Alley is the perfect example for a neo-noir film, a deeply stylized movie in which its complex environment is filled with darkness. Almost every character has purely cynical motivations.
Every element of the genre is checked in the movie: an anti-hero protagonist with questionable morals, a femme-fatale who leads the protagonist to his terrible fate and incredibly dark content paired with graphic visuals.
Desperation and pessimism exude through the screen with the on-point performances of the lead actors and the unique visuals only del Toro could envision. Nightmare Alley is another homage to his love for the product of his craft.
Regina López is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.