Plot: What’s it about?
A strange thing happened shortly before the release of Nightmare Alley. I did some research and learned that it was in fact a remake. I then stumbled upon a few reviews of the original, 1947 film and even did a blind purchase. A similar thing happened way back when 3:10 to Yuma when the remake was released in 2007. While both versions are fine, I preferred the 2007 much more. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the Nightmare remake. Maybe it was viewing both versions very closely to one another, but the original reeled me in in such a way that the remake failed to do. I also preferred Tyrone Power in the lead. I don’t feel Bradley Cooper was the best fit here. Before I get too far ahead of myself, I did enjoy this updated version, but much of the film’s scenes (the first half especially) are basically lifted from one and put into another. This has happened in countless remakes, but when it’s in such a manner here I began to question this one’s very existence. My mind started wondering why remake a film to follow it the original so closely. To its credit, Director Guillermo Del Toro gets the look of the film just right. Some may argue that it’s perhaps too modern looking for a film that begins in 1939.
Bradley Cooper plays Stan Carlisle. He takes a job as a carny with a traveling carnival. In the film’s opening scenes, we see Stan burning down a house to dispose of a dead body. This is something that is brought up throughout the film. The film’s early moments are particularly interesting as we see how the carnival operates and get a feel for how various things are performed. It doesn’t take long for Stan to concoct an idea of learning a code that is used in one of the acts of reading people’s minds. It is Stan’s hope to take the bit of information he learns and use it for his own personal gain, away from the carnival. He hopes that a fellow performer named Molly (Rooney Mara) will join him. The film then flashes forward and before long introduces Cate Blanchett as Lilith Ritter who is a psychologist who attempts to expose Stan’s act. Those who’ve seen the original film will have a general idea where this one is headed, but the running time here is extended by nearly 40 minutes. Therein lies my biggest issue with this version. When things should be speeding up and reaching the urgency the story calls for, Del Toro brings it to a halt.
What’s most interesting to me with having Del Toro as director here is how most of his films deal with monsters of some sort, but in this one, the monsters are in fact human. It felt like an interesting contrast to some of his other work. His version of Nightmare Alley gets a lot of things right even if I still find it inferior to the original film. It could’ve used some tightening, but the cast helps things a bit. Cooper does solid work, but I do think a different actor in the lead could’ve given us better results. Something about him just felt a bit out of place here. I wonder how Michael Fassbender might’ve fared in the lead. In supporting roles are Willem Defoe, Toni Collette and Richard Jenkins all turn in strong performances. I did appreciate some of the changes Del Toro made here, but the film throws a bit too much at us. As it stands, viewers should feel good about checking out both versions if for no other reason than comparison’s sake.
Video: How’s it look?
The visuals are one of the film’s strongest qualities, so having a less than stellar transfer would be a dealbreaker. Thankfully that isn’t the case here as it was simply dazzling to look at. Having seen the film theatrically as well, I can attest for it at least being accurately duplicated at home. I was surprised to see the ratio at only 1.85:1 as this seemed like a film to surely be shot wider. Still, the transfer impresses.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The Dolby Atmos track impressed me. The vocals have the crisp sound I like. The film does have a few tricks (pardon the pun) up its sleeve and in those moments the track kicks it up a notch. I feel the audio is a fine supplement to the visuals.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Del Toro’s Neo Noir – Writer-director Guillermo del Toro and his standout cast decipher the dark, complicated world of Nightmare Alley. The filmmaker reveals how his take on noir is rooted in classic cinema but offers an accessible, modern narrative.
- Beneath the Tarp – Production designer Tamara Deverell and her talented team skillfully delivered both a decaying traveling carnival world and a gilded Art Deco high society with striking visuals. We explore how this design supported del Toro’s genre-bending filmmaking.
- What Exists in the Fringe – Costume designer Luis Sequeira unravels his collaboration with Guillermo del Toro and reveals the symbolism that’s constantly at play in the film’s carefully crafted wardrobe’s design.
The Bottom Line
I have specifically left out plot points here so viewers can remain fresh. That and there is quite a bit here to unravel, but Nightmare Alley is certainly worth a viewing. Do I feel it’s essential viewing? Not necessarily and especially when compared to the original which I still prefer. It is nice, though to have updated visuals and effects that they simply couldn’t do in the 40’s. I can see fans of the director doing a blind purchase, but for the more weary viewer, then a rental is a safe bet.