I am writing about the unsettling new Guillermo Del Toro film at 5:22 a.m. on Christmas morning because after an eight-month hiatus, it’s the only time I’ve been able to set aside for any reasonable amount of “extra” writing or “pleasure” writing. I haven’t slept all night, because for the first time in a long time, I’m setting the day aside (Christmas) to do whatever I’d like to do, among and between zoom calls and visits with people and things of that nature. It is a fitting reflection of my life, I think, that I plan on writing about deceit, manipulation, murder, and our innate fascination with “difference,” vaguely signified, at 5:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. Indeed, if I had a definable brand, I think this post would reflect it quite clearly.
To frame my discussion of Nightmare Alley, I am compelled, for whatever reason, to start out with a list of contemporary horror directors that I think are just over-the-top, fantastic and original – real innovators who have not just kept the genre alive and popular, but who have begun to re-define it and show the possibility for artistry in explorations of the violent and the abject. Ari Aster would be on that list, as would David Robert Mitchell (although the latter needs to make more movies, in my humble opinion). Robert Eggers and his relatively bleak, twisted view on life has definitely added to the genre, along with the inimitable and sensational Jordan Peele. I drop these directorial names as favorites a lot when I’m conversing about horror, and many of them have become cornerstones of discursive exchange when early 21st-century horror is the topic at hand. It’s interesting, then, that I so often forget to talk about Guillermo Del Toro when I think of variety and innovation in the genre, because he’s been doing complex, unique, brilliant things for quite some time now, even before this wave of exciting new horror started forming.
I have written about Del Toro’s films before, (Crimson Peak, Mama, The Shape of Water), but when I mention cool, innovative directors who I love, I sometimes forget to include him on the list of names. Let this post, then, be a sort of tribute to him. I think Guillermo Del Toro is fantastic. No two works of his are ever remotely the same, and while some brilliant horror directors produce films that at least somewhat mimic each other in style, Del Toro’s style is hard to define, hard to pin down. And that’s not a bad thing – it’s a huge achievement, I think. I loved, for example, the spooky ghost-story-but-really-mystery-story Crimson Peak, but it was nothing like Nightmare Alley and even further from a film like The Shape of Water. I am never bored when I watch a Del Toro movie (he could make a five-hour film and I still wouldn’t let myself take a bathroom break), but I get something new whenever I invest time into his creative vision. In short, I seriously freakin’ love him.
It will come as no surprise, then, that I was immediately riveted when I sat down to watch Nightmare Alley. If there’s one thing that can make a Del Toro movie even better, it’s the inclusion of Bradley Cooper, and Cooper had me immediately guessing his character’s angle. I know, logically, it’s not always productive to evaluate a fictional character through the binary lens of good/bad, but Cooper’s character, Stanton Carlisle, says so little in the first 20 minutes of the film that I couldn’t help but do it. The film starts, after all, with Carlisle in a secluded, run-down house. Evidently, he’s buried someone after murdering him, and he appears to be setting the grave (dug below the house’s foundation) on fire to burn the evidence. Then, he hops on a train, and the next thing you know, he’s joined the circus – which, because we’re in the early 20th century, is like a so-called “freak show.” Cooper’s face throughout this entire first part of the film is simultaneously expressive and enigmatic; you see signs of empathy, for example, when he first lays his eyes on “the geek,” the unfortunate circus performer who’s been manipulated and dosed into a state of desperation by the circus leader so that he’ll agree to eat the head off live chickens to wow the audience. At the same time, as an audience member, I was wary of Carlisle’s early silence and never fully able to trust him; it seemed relatively clear early in the film that our protagonist was going to – perhaps uncomfortably – stratify the often-flimsy boundary between “good” and “evil” – which is, perhaps, appropriate, since in real life no person is only one thing. In any case, perhaps because I’ve been engineered by cultural narratives that rest on clear dividing lines between good and evil, I kept wanting to “figure” Carlisle out early in the film, to decide whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. In short, Cooper’s intentionally obfuscated performance early in the film left me immediately fascinated. And, of course, I would learn more about him soon enough.
The rest of the film foregrounds Carlisle’s rise to fame as a medium-cum-con-man who’s stolen a code book from a deceased, alcoholic carnival member (Pete), a book that helps him appear to have clairvoyant powers; he pretends to read people’s minds, to know things he seemingly couldn’t know, and to communicate with the dead. Significantly, Carlisle’s the one who’s killed the alcoholic Pete, although the fact that it was intentional is revealed later in the story – an intriguing ellipsis that might be filled in partially be reading the signs of the plot, but that is not completely resolved until later in the film. At one key turning point in the movie, his wife and act-mate Molly (Rooney Mara) begs him to tell a duped audience member the truth after the show (that he didn’t really communicate with the audience’s dead loved one), but Stanton refuses. Though he’s given us evidence that he’s an unsavory character already, after this pivotal decision, his deceit and manipulation become more personal with the characters in the diegetic narrative, and more evident (and uncomfortable) to the viewer. To gain money and fame, he becomes twisted in a world of falsity, façade, and illusion that eventually leads to his downfall, a downfall aided and expedited by Cate Blanchett’s conniving character, psychiatrist Lilith Ritter.
I watched this film without knowing that there was an original version made in 1947, and a book published in 1946. Now that I’m aware of these two earlier works, I’d really like to read the book, watch the original movie, and write a post on all three of them. But, because I cannot do that right now, I’m inclined to compare the film in part to the then-controversial 1932 film Freaks, a film directed by the late great Tod Browning (himself a circus performer before he became a director), and a film that was greatly excoriated during its time, not, David Skal would argue in Monster Show, for its objectionable depiction of “the freaks,” but because the “the freaks” gang up against the malicious “normal” people and take their revenge on the non-freaks for callous behavior. According to Skal, in 1932, we weren’t in a cultural moment that wanted to see characters marked by bodily difference surmount the devious machinations of traditional heroes and heroines. In any case, both Freaks and Nightmare Alley demonstrate a vested interest in performers who are essentially exploited or showcased for their difference, and both films feature the semi-tragic fall of a character who – for different reasons in each film – kind of “has it coming” for them.
I think one similarity that’s worth noting (and this is a huge spoiler, so, alert, alert!), is that both films tap into our innate fear not just of being a different “other” or a “freak” – for in both films, not all characters who occupy positions of otherness have a bad life, and many are framed quite positively – but by being the sort of ultimate other, the oppressed and exploited freak whose dignity and humanity is eradicated for the sake of letting the show go on. In both films, traditionally beautiful, successful main characters come to that end, an end that is defined by the characters’ marked dive into indignity and ridicule. The basic “cautionary tale” style of the films would go something like this: avoid hubris and be good to others, or you may become the ultimate other, not just the “freak” (because, after all, the “freaks” are still people and their lives are fun) but the most “freakish” freak at the show, someone who’s abdicated their humanity and whose life isn’t worth living. The films create a sort of third degree of otherization, a fate, for both characters in both films, that positions them on the exterior boundaries of the “freak” community, sad outliers in a community of happy outliers. Now, from a socio-historical standpoint we may make various things of this fascination, for we see it in 1932 with Freaks, and although the original Nightmare Alley was made in 1947, the strength of Del Toro’s remake suggests that the exploration of such fascination, such fear, resonates even in contemporary times. But, before diving into all that, let’s look at how cruelty and hubris lead to each character’s downfall in Freaks and then again in the newest version of Nightmare Alley.
While I write about Freaks in an earlier blogpost, another overview of the film here will be an apt starting point, to showcase the similarities of both films, and to at least begin to conjecture how similar, conventional plot structures explore a fascination with difference and otherness in two very different historical moments in American culture. Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks features Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a stereotypically attractive trapeze artist who displays no signs of “freakishness” or no marked divergence like the other characters at the circus, and her lover Hercules (Henry Victor), both of whom join together to play a trick on one of the circus members, Hans, who is in love with Cleopatra. Cleopatra decides to prank Hans by pretending to love him and agreeing to marry him (in part for his fortune), but she makes a joke and a mockery of Hans on their wedding day by acting out and doing things to intentionally embarrass him, in part because of his height and small stature. When the other “freaks” find out, they plan and mount an attack on Cleopatra that leaves her severely disabled and relegated to the status of the circus “chicken lady,” a woman who can’t move or speak but who only clucks while her head appears attached to the fake body of a chicken. It’s a really great cautionary tale about being an asshole; Cleopatra cruelly and intentionally exploits Hans, and in the end, she suffers a dismal fate, a life in which she sits in the center of a crowd to be gawked at and laughed at, unable to move or speak. It’s a vicious, brutal conclusion, but the more condemning part of our minds as audience members might experience some vindication from it. Stanton Carlisle’s fate in Del Toro’s version of Nightmare Alley is similar. Like Cleopatra, he devotes significant time and effort to deceiving people; his quest for fame and fortune have dire consequences for others and he shows no remorse over his transgressions. At the end of the film, while he doesn’t become the “chicken lady” like Cleopatra, he becomes the geek himself, the destitute, dirty, drug and alcohol addicted character who is treated like a monster by everyone in the circus and who eats the heads off live chickens to entertain the audience.
It is worth noting that although both Cleopatra and Stanton Carlisle occupy unenviable states by the end of their respective movies, the implication in both films is that they are actually as monstrous or more monstrous preceding their downfalls. When I taught Frankenstein in my Reading the Monster classes a couple years ago, students tended to think that Victor Frankenstein was more monstrous than his creature. Similarly, both Cleopatra and Stanton Carlisle are far more monstrous, throughout the narratives they occupy, than the so-called freaks that are often treated like monsters by those in charge of the circus, and they are more monstrous before their downfalls than when they are forced to occupy the exploitative space designated for their “absolute monstrosity.” The monstrosity of many of the non-divergent, or “normal” characters is especially insinuated in Nightmare Alley, in which Cate Blanchett’s attractive, intelligent, self-assured, character Lilith Ritter is depicted as unquestionably monstrous. While we may suppose (perhaps, just perhaps) that Stanton Carlisle had some redeeming qualities before he became obsessed with deceiving people for fame and money, Nightmare Alley’s narrative makes no insinuations that there’s anything sympathetic about Lilith Ritter. Indeed, she’s named after an extra-biblical monster (who is also sort of quintessentially symbolic of female monstrosity in Western culture), and she seems, based on the end of the film, to indict Carlisle and even manufacture new crimes for him (for example, she stages a situation in which it looks like he’s raping her when the cops come) for nothing more than her own amusement. While there may well be some money involved in recording his “therapeutic” confessions and framing him to make him look like an even more villainous character than he is, Ritter is clearly exceedingly wealthy, and she asserts that money was never her object. She seems intent on Carlisle’s downfall, not because she wants to perform an act of vigilante justice, but because it amuses her. It’s a game of wits between them, and Ritter wants to win. Like the Wicked Queen, disguised to be beautiful but revealed to be evil underneath, Lilith Ritter is pure monstrosity in this film, a woman we never trust but learn to love to hate, because she’s cruel for no reason and doesn’t care.
Various monster theorists have pointed out that the mid-20th century was a time of transition from a fascination with divergent bodies (like Frankenstein) to a preoccupation with monstrous human beings who don’t have any significant physical markers but who are far more insidious, far more malicious than the often oppressed “monsters” of earlier days. Of course, as Stephen Asma argues, perhaps the word “monster” always deserves to have implicit quotes around it; no human being is really a monster, and no monster is really a “monster,” in the pejorative, condemning way we use the word. Nevertheless, Nightmare Alley combines a cast of fantastic actors to showcase monstrosity at work; the film seems to suggest, “watch out, because if you act like a monster long enough, you may become the ultimate monster.”