The crushing disappointment of Nightmare Alley

nightmare2021aNightmare Alley, 2021, 150 mins, 4K UHD

Well I guess the title of this post tells it all; Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a misfire, vastly inferior to the 1947 noir original. After seeing all those gushing reviews at the end of last year and all that talk of Oscar (whatever that really means) I finally watched this imported 4K disc and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sure its pretty, that is typical of Guillermo, he’s a great visual stylist, but I was actually shocked how badly staged this film was- scenes that are disturbing in the 1947 original just seem staid and even confusing in this version, and the star-studded cast are left wasted, Guillermo unable to extract any interesting performances from them: they look like millionaire actors playing bums and are about as convincing. I usually like Bradley Cooper but he lacks sufficient intensity to pull this off, and now that I think about it, most of the cast seem unaware they are in a noir, their performances tuned for something else. So I was left at the movies end wondering had I seen the same movie as those adoring critics, had I missed something?

Is it as simple as the critics thinking Guillermo their new darling (after the over-rated The Shape of Water), who can do no wrong, or that they are largely ignorant of the superior 1947 original film demonstrating how it should have been done? This one is just too long, horribly paced and curiously uninvolving, considering that the original freaked me out and had me disturbed for weeks afterwards. The original was as much a horror film as it was a noir and like so many noir, briskly paced with no fat at all, like some runaway train pulling its despairing character to his doom. There’s no relentless nightmare down this particular alley, little sense of its character at the mercy of terrible fate, and none of the surprises of the original.

So I am left wondering, what film were those fawning critics watching? I cannot understand, for instance, how none of them seem bothered by some glaring continuity errors that seem rather odd for such a well-regarded film. One early one bothered me so much that it likely spoiled the film for me entirely, as my head kept on referring back to it thinking it would constitute something of a twist, eventually, but it was a twist that never came. The Carnival is taken down to be moved some twenty miles to join another carnival site, and soon after arriving there, the geek escapes and following a tense search in which Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) suffers a head injury mysteriously absent the next day, the geek is captured and returned to his cage- but this location/tent is the one they left behind at the previous site. They carnies have not had time to put up the tent etc or dig the pit, and it wouldn’t be so clearly identical if they had, right down to rows of formaldehyde jars and their grisly contents. It doesn’t make any sense, frankly, and in that way that continuity errors sometimes do, took me straight out of the movie, and I struggled to get back ‘into’ it.

So instead I’m just left with an urge to re-watch the 1947 original again and a pretty 4K coaster. I don’t know, maybe I need to muster the courage (and time, this thing is 150 minutes long) to give Guillermo’s film another try with lower expectations. But unless The Batman proves different next month, I fear this Nightmare Alley could likely be the biggest disappointment of the year.

12 thoughts on “The crushing disappointment of Nightmare Alley

  1. Michael Thomas

    Always enjoy your posts (and sorry about your dad). I gave up on del Toro after “Pan’s Labyrinth”. I went rushing out to see that on opening night and found it to be pretty dreadful and… well… just not scary (though the make up effects held great promise). Later, I checked out “The Orphanage” on DVD and didn’t think much about that. And I won’t go into “Mama”, which I can’t seem to find my DVD copy to reference (must have gotten rid of it!). Thanks for the heads up about “Nightmare Alley”. I was getting tempted to see it. I’ll check out the original 1947, for sure. Like the saying goes: they don’t make ’em like they used to.

    1. cheers Michael, yes, I’m definitely gravitating more towards older films than current ones. There’s just more skill and craft to them, I don’t know how else to explain it. I do honestly believe that there is so much stuff in production now, all the money being spent on streaming (surely that bubble will burst) has resulted in so many series and movies being made, that the talent pool is just stretched too thin. Some people are writing and directing and starring in films who have little talent at all, they are just taking advantage of the demand for content and putting money in the bank. It can’t last forever.

      Which is steering away from the problems that the new Nightmare Alley has, as I wouldn’t want to suggest Del Toro is some talentless jerk, I think this films problems lie elsewhere – I suspect that there’s some incredibly lazy casting in Hollywood these days, actors able to drift from one Netflix movie to another and directors too. This new Nightmare Alley is too smooth, too slick, too safe. Do watch the 1947 original, it’ll blow your mind, its a hungry, dirty cheap little picture totally unlike the wasteful projects being shot in Hollywood these days. They should have given Del Toro $10 million and a cast of unknowns and final cut- I suspect it would have been a much better outcome.

      1. Michael Thomas

        You have a point. People are always coming up to me (they know I’m a movie buff) and ask if I’ve seen the latest series on Netflix, etc. and I have to admit I haven’t. For starters I don’t have the time to get mixed up in an endless series (I learned my lessons with “Dexter” and “The Walking Dead”) and call me old fashioned, but I have a nice collection of DVD/Blu-rays that is ever expanding, and I’m just happy that way, thank you. Currently I’m awaiting a Christopher Lee/Dracula four movie collection DVD from Amazon. Like I said, they don’t make ’em like they used to.

      2. Those Christopher Lee Dracula films from Hammer are so good. My favourite actor in them is Peter Cushing, mind – I love watching him in anything, but those Dracula films are so gaudy and gothic, I adore them. The music! Those gorgeous women!

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    Yep. I run hot and cold on Del Toro, and not always the same way other people do. I resisted seeing ‘The Shape Of Water’ for ages, given that ‘Pacific Rim’ was prettified garbage, ‘Crimson Peak’ looked like prettified garbage [I still haven’t bothered with it], and I don’t like Sally Hawkins’ acting style. But I ended up really liking it. So I was quite looking forward to this. I didn’t know there was an earlier version. I just went in cold.

    And came out cold. Yes, every frame was beautiful to look at, but it was so long and so monotone and so boring. Every dramatic turn was signposted so clearly and so far ahead that I knew exactly what was going to happen to who right from the beginning. And don’t get me started on Cate Blanchett vamping her way through yet another caricature role. Remember when she was a great actress? Playing actual people?

    Oh, and a warning: The Batman is just as bad. It’s a real slog, even in IMAX.

    1. Cate Blanchett looked like she was wearing a mask. There’s something weird going on with her face lately.

      Do give the 1947 Nightmare Alley a try, it came out on Blu-ray a few months back and is possibly cheap enough for a blind-buy. You could find it on YouTube for free but you’d probably prefer to see it in the best quality. I’ll be interested in your take on it. Its a completely different beast.

      Is The Batman that bad? Christ its just as well I ignore the hype and reviews, I’ll lower my expectations. What is it with movies these days?

      1. Matthew McKinnon

        I’d say try Batman and if you don’t like the first half an hour then give up because it just does more of that for another 140 minutes.

        You never know – you might like it if you purely value murky visuals over an interesting story / ideas / clarity etc.

        I will check out the original Nightmare Alley when it comes up in a sale – I have a massive backlog to get through at the moment.

      2. I stayed so out of the spoiler-territory regards The Batman that I had no idea it clocks three hours. I’ve just posted a review extolling 1940s/1950s films for being short and efficient in storytelling and then I learn that a comicbook movie -retelling something other movies have already done so many times- needs three hours to tell its story? Must be the definition of self-indulgence, but I’ll see….

    1. Sorry Greg, but you never know, you might like it! Goodness knows so many of the critical fraternity do, I might be missing something (or maybe I was spoiled by having seen the original first). I’ll keep an eye out for when you get to seeing it/ posting a review.

  3. I too blind bought this on the strength of that critical reception — not that I’ve read any specific reviews, just the general gist that it was very good and had been under-appreciated at the box office / by awards bodies / etc — even though it was available even quicker on Disney+. Well, maybe I’ll love it yet — goodness knows, there are plenty of ‘unpopular’ films I see something of worth in (Crimson Peak perhaps being an example; or that I was excited to read that Red Sonja is coming to 4K this year).

    (Also, I must somewhat apologise for the bombardment of comments as I’ve caught up on your recent posts!)

    1. No problem re: all the comments mate, you’re rescuing me from the tennis that’s monopolised my telly since 11 a.m. (Claire loves her tennis and Amazon Prime is like a Tennis Bomb that keeps on going off in our house, its as endless as that Bond franchise- this week its Madrid all week).

      You might indeed love Del Toro’s version but to stand any chance of that you need to watch that one first, but that would likely impact your enjoyment of the first, and better, film. So I really can’t suggest what’s the best way to go. What annoyed me most about Del Toro’s film was how it was style over substance, it looks gorgeous and very noir-like but it lacks that killer bite that noir films usually have, and was sloppily staged and executed (entirely down to Del Toro’s direction). A new Nightmare Alley should have the moody vibe of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, for me, rather than, well, Indiana Jones and the Fun Fair of Doom, which is the vibe I had watching this one.

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