At Guillermo del Toro’s Alley of nightmares waste no time telling you what kind of movie this is. The film opens with a slow, patient shot of a man dragging a body across the floor of an empty, decrepit house, only to drop it unceremoniously into a makeshift hole. Moments later, the man, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), sets the house on fire – and the body buried inside.
The message is clear : Alley of nightmares is not a fairy tale like The shape of water Where Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s just a movie about ugly people, the kind who treat the dead with the same level of consideration you might carry a sack of rotten potatoes. The rest of del Toro’s film delivers on its promise with its silent opening scene, delivering a dark horror that seeks to expose the darker parts of a man’s soul.
This is the most realistic film of del Toro’s career, totally devoid of the ghosts, fantastic creatures, and magic that inhabit so much of his work. It’s also the scariest movie he’s ever made.
Alley of nightmares follows Cooper’s Carlisle as he flees his burning childhood home and joins the crew of a traveling carnival run by manipulator Clem (Willem Dafoe). While traveling with the carnival team, Carlisle bonds with their resident medium Zeena (Toni Collete) and her sweet alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), and he begins a romance with young Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara). Pete and Zeera teach Clem the ways of mentalism, while he and Molly dream of running away together.
When the two lovebirds leave their friends, they find exactly the success they were hoping for. Stan is making waves as a mentalist known as “The Great Stanton”, while Molly works as his assistant. Stan’s success draws the attention of wealthy benefactors willing to pay him for private readings, but also of Dr.Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a senior psychiatrist who is personally interested in deconstructing Stan’s public personality. .
Based on the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham in 1946, Alley of nightmares is a slow combustion. It takes time to set up Stan’s inevitable rise and fall, and his screenplay, co-written by del Toro and Kim Morgan, ensures viewers are aware of the many ways Stan is a fraud.
It pays, and our knowledge of his lies makes Stan’s ambitions beyond his abilities in Alley of nightmaresis back half more annoying.
This feeling of dread, the ever-present knowledge that Stan’s plans will eventually catch up with him, permeates Alley of nightmares with an inescapable sense of fate.
This feeling brings a lot to the film, especially in its second act when its script fails to maintain a forward momentum. Fortunately, Alley of nightmaresSlow-downs don’t last long, and the film is at its best in its captivating, carnival-like first act and undeniably anxiety-provoking finale. The middle act, where Stan builds his career as a big-city mentalist, may feel like he’s been force-fed vegetables before dessert, but it’s still beautiful to watch.
Alley of nightmares is del Toro’s most mind-blowing film to date. Shot by Crimson woodpecker and The shape of water cinematographer Dan Laustsen, the film is a dark and golden homage to the 1940s that black del Toro so clearly adores in Hollywood (Alley of nightmares was, in fact, previously adapted in 1947). Blanchett’s introduction to Lilith Ritter appears to be taken directly from a Golden Age movie, with the actress initially appearing only in silhouette, cigarette smoke swirling around her, before entering the light.
Alley of Nightmares’interpreters all rise to meet the standards set by del Toro and his crew. Blanchett puts on a delightfully cold-blooded performance as Ritter, proving she would have fitted in very well into the 1940s Hollywood scene. From the film’s carnival crew, David Strathairn makes a lasting impression as Pete , a man who has seen and done just about everything Stan will do and is happy to barely survive it.
Corn Alley of nightmares would be nothing without Bradley Cooper, who cements his status as one of Hollywood’s biggest living movie stars with his performance. As Stan, a less intelligent but more cruel man than he thinks, Cooper doesn’t say a word for the first 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter: you watch all of his movements and manners anyway.
When Stan’s weaknesses and arrogance start to take hold, Cooper plays it with the conviction of a man who doesn’t realize that fire has already surrounded him. Later, once Stan finally recognizes the gravity of his predicament, Cooper brings unexpected undertones of relief and acceptance to his performance, adding a layer of bittersweetness to the film’s largely savage final act.
An outlier in del Toro’s filmography, Alley of nightmares comes across as a simple black with no supernatural elements, almost as if del Toro chooses to do the opposite of The shape of water, its winner for best film 2017. But despite its gender difference, Alley of nightmares goes well with the director’s previous work.
Like all del Toro films, Alley of nightmares is fascinated by ghosts. Its characters aspire to reclaim what they have lost, whether it is a loved one or the life they once led. In the case of Stanton Carlisle, Guillermo del Toro argues that it’s not just the past that can haunt a man, but the future.
When the film finally hits its final beautifully cynical punchline, we see how Stan’s future had reached out to him from the start, pulling him into his steel embrace. Like Alley of nightmares proves, sometimes there is nothing scarier than realizing that you have never been what you thought you were.
Alley of nightmares opens in theaters on December 17th.