We last spoke of Tod Browning, who, after the smash success of Dracula, spent his career cache on a dark morality fable set in a carnival sideshow. The resulting movie, Freaks, stopped Browning’s career dead in its track. This year, director Guillermo del Toro, hot off the success of The Shape Of Water, which won the 2017 Best Picture Oscar, followed that success up with Nightmare Alley, a dark morality fable set in a carnival sideshow. Great!
Fortunately, Del Toro’s film did not crash into his career like the wrecking ball that was Browning's Freaks.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, which hit theaters in December of 2021 (just in time for Christmas, kids!), is the second cinematic telling of William Lindsey Greshem’s apocalyptically dark 1946 novel.
Greshem, a truly haunted dude, wove the tale of Stanton Carlisle, a prototypical film noir drifter, who gets a job at a “ten-in-one,” a traveling sideshow. Sideshows, called as such because they travelled alongside a much larger circus or fair. Sideshows were famous for attractions such as strong men, human oddities (“Seal-O The Seal Boy!”), psychics, magicians and the like. Also found at sideshows were geeks. Geeks were guys who had fallen on hard times and who made their “living” pretending to be a wild man, jumping about and grunting their way around a pit of straw, biting the heads off live chickens for the amusement / horror of audiences.
Guess where Stanton Carlisle ends up at the end of the Nightmare Alley??? The book was first made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power (see He’ll Geek, Pt. 1). Power loved the story. Although audiences at the time did not share his enthusiasm , time has been kind to the film and it has achieved a much deserved status as one of the great American noirs.
Why make it again? Del Toro's previous film, The Shape Of Water is a love story, albeit one where the dude is pretty much The Creature From The Black Lagoon (a friend of mine referred to the film as Grinding Nemo). The Shape Of Water is a tremendously heartwarming, life-affirming film that sends you out of the theater feeling buoyant. Nightmare Alley? Not so much. So why make it?
In an interview with Noir City magazine (courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation, Del Toro, speaking alongside his co-screenwriter and co-married person Kim Morgan attributed it to, “shut eye.” Shut eye is an occupational hazard that sometimes befalls psychics, mentalists and stage magicians. It refers to someone who has become so adept at the illusion of mind reading, that they come to believe that they actually possess genuine psychic powers. They drink their own Kool-Aid.
Although the film is set in 1946, Del Toro saw Nightmare Alley as a profoundly modern story. As he said to Noir City, “It’s a very prescient movie about the moment we are living in and how, in a certain way, we are all getting ‘shut-eye.’ This is a crucial moment to distinguish truth from lies in every aspect of our social, spiritual and political life.
And therein lies the revelation at the heart of Nightmare Alley. It’s not that the carnival is a lot like life, it’s that life is the carnival.
As Del Toro told Noir City, “Greshem basically says everything is a grift and everything is real to a point. The tarot is real in some ways, psychology is real in some ways and carnival life is a real thing. “You give us your money, we give you an illusion for a few minutes, and that’s it. We don’t lie to you. You know how this is.”
There are those who are smart enough to know a grift when they see one, those who can tune out carny barkers, charlatans, and phony mystics. And there are those who fall for it, hook line and sinker. As P.T. Barnum said, “There's a sucker born every minute."
Remind you of anything you've seen on the news lately?