Guillermo del Toro’s latest critically acclaimed masterpiece, nightmare alley, is called a departure for the director. The plot has no supernatural elements, and Stanton Carlisle’s dark story is framed as a classic noir with high-contrast lighting and a stark anti-hero.
But it’s still a classic del Toro movie. The most appropriate genre category would be ‘horror noir’. With creepy images, Ron Perlman, and a sympathetic portrayal of a monster, nightmare alley holds on to many of the stylistic trademarks that have defined del Toro’s filmmaking from the start.
7 disturbing images
There are no supernatural elements in nightmare alley – just carnies pretending to have supernatural powers – but it still has a lot of Del Toro’s signature disturbing imagery. The film is more of a noir than del Toro’s standard horror films, but the production design is just as terrifying.
The film begins with a corpse being burned. Molly covers herself in fake blood to portray one of Ezra’s many victims. Willem Dafoe’s stubborn leader holds a pickled three-eyed fetus named Enoch in a jar. There are just so many nerve-racking images in nightmare alley as one of del Toro’s more traditional horror films.
6 Calling back to bygone genres
Del Toro typically tells human stories, but he frames them in familiar genres. Rather than follow Hollywood’s genre trends, Del Toro handpicks his favorite bygone genres of the past and modernizes them in moving, disturbing, deeply cinematic ways.
The Labyrinth of Pan calls back to fairy tales; Crimson Peak recalls the haunted house tales of gothic horror; Pacific Rim calls back to monster-infested Japanese Kaiju movies. And nightmare alley is a classic noir with high-contrast lighting, a femme fatale and an antihero brought down by his own depraved decisions.
5 Carefully thought out color palette
Throughout his career, del Toro chose the colors in his cinematic compositions very carefully. He very consciously chooses the palette of each film, from the amber hellboy to the blues and greens and The Labyrinth of Pan to the green and yellow of The shape of water. In Sheet IIwarm yellows and cold blues are used to represent the dichotomy of day and night.
Del Toro recording nightmare alley in color, but he exposed it as a black-and-white film (it was even re-released in black-and-white under the title Nightmare Alley: A Vision in Darkness and Light). This lighting brought out dark, gloomy colors to represent Stan’s dark, gloomy worldview.
4 Ron Perlman
Ron Perlman is del Toro’s lucky charm. The two have been working together since del Toro’s low-budget feature film debut, Cronos. In the years that followed, Perlman played the titular demonic orphan in the… hellboy films and appeared in supporting roles in Sheet II, Pacific Rimand of course, nightmare alley. In nightmare alleyPerlman plays one of his toughest, most brutal del Toro characters yet.
Bruno is the strongman at the fair that Molly’s father swore he would protect her. True to Perlman’s gruff on-screen persona, Bruno is just as aggressive offstage (especially when he notices Stan’s showing an interest in Molly).
3 Visual Symbols
All of del Toro’s films are riddled with visual symbolism. In The Labyrinth of Panthe labyrinth of the same name is a symbol of life and virtue, filled with mind-boggling, complicated decisions.
In nightmare alley, circles are the main recurring motifs. Circles can be seen throughout the film: Stan’s stage, his dressing room, the tunnel in the funhouse, the list goes on. In a way, the whole story is a circle: it starts with Stan breaking into a fairground and witnessing a geek show, and ends with a broken, riotous Stan becoming the star attraction of one.
2 Bittersweet ending
Stan’s moral ruin in nightmare alley leads to the inevitable tragic ending where a carny boss recruits him for a “temporary” position on the geek show. In the last close-up shot, he breaks in and says to the carny boss, “Sir, I was born for it.” This is a classic example of del Toro’s signature bittersweet endings.
Some of his films end on a decidedly hopeful note, such as: Pacific Rim or The shape of water, but most end up more ambiguous. At the end of The Labyrinth of Pan, Ofelia is shot by Captain Vidal, but resurrects as a princess in the fantasy underworld. At the end of Crimson PeakEdith and Alan are rescued, but Lucille is doomed to spend eternity in the mansion, playing the piano like the ghost of Allerdale Hall.
1 The sympathetic monster
In a recent interview about WTF with Marc Marondel Toro said the two stories that most influenced him were: Frankenstein and Pinocchio. These two stories are linked by their sympathetic portrayal of a monster as the ultimate outsider. The lovable monster is the defining feature of del Toro’s filmmaking.
Hellboy is an orphaned demon seeking acceptance, Blade is a half-human, half-vampire seeking to save humanity from vampires, and The shape of waterThe starry-eyed Amazon fisherman is not a terrifying ogre; he is a hopeless romantic. nightmare alleyThe con man who gets ripped off, Stan Carlisle, is a classic likeable monster.
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