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Nightmare Alley is in UK cinemas from 21 January. 

William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley (1946) is in a tradition that feels like the deformed twin of Horatio Alger’s American stories of hard-working, self-made men. Stanton Carlisle, Gresham’s protagonist, is a self-acknowledged heel who’ll use any trick, betray any friend, and resort to murder to rise from poverty. It’s the arc of the classic gangster movie, but also of such cynical, state-of-the-nation tales as Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run (1941) and Billy Wilder’s film Ace in the Hole (1951). Just as the gangster must end up dead in the gutter, the hustler must suffer a ghastly, ironic fate. Stan is doomed to become the most despised performer in the carnival – the geek, who squats in a pit and bites off chicken heads.

Though Guillermo del Toro has played variations on classic horror and fantasy cinema or comic-book properties, Nightmare Alley is his first film based on a novel. It feels unlikely the material would have appealed to his very cinematic sensibilities if it hadn’t been filmed before. The book is full of the sort of details that affronted the censors of the time, but Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947) is a remarkably faithful, aptly nightmarish adaptation. Reputedly, 20th Century Fox made it because star Tyrone Power insisted on the occasional challenging role amid his usual swashbuckling fare, and the troubled matinee idol gave his best screen performance as Carlisle.

Decades on, the studio – now absorbed into Disney, who represent a very different brand of carny spirit – has its Fox Searchlight subdivision to mount such prestige, favour-to-the-talent properties. Del Toro, following up the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (2017), gives the book another going over – though, to be on the safe side, he’s also delivering a more appealing self-improvement fable in his next picture, Pinocchio.

For Gresham, psychoanalysis is as much witchcraft as mentalism, Tarot reading or table-rapping, and Cate Blanchett is splendidly fiendish as the besuited, incarnadine-lipped Dr Lilith Ritter. She assists Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle in conning the gloomy, guilty marks of high society in a snowy city (Buffalo, New York), but insists, a little like Hannibal Lecter, on revelations as a quid pro quo. Underlining themes already written in bold, the sessions on her office couch – in which Stan confesses to a literally oedipal murder, repeated several times over – take away from rather than enhance Cooper’s clammy, quease-making performance. Del Toro adds what Orson Welles – who gets a nod when Stan ends up at the Amberson Carnival – called “dollar-book Freud”, as we frequently revisit a primal scene of slain father and burned-down homestead, whereas ‘you’re no good and neither am I’ is diagnosis enough for Lilith and Stan’s partnership.

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley (2021)
Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley (2021)
© Courtesy of Disney

Gresham was a serious student of carny lore – he authored the nonfiction Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1954) – but del Toro sees Nightmare Alley as an add-on to the grotesque yet fanciful film tradition of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. He includes a lookalike for the bird-woman of Browning’s Freaks (1932), but also the spider girl from his much less-known The Show (1927). A passage taken straight from the novel, in which a barker (Willem Dafoe) explains the appalling process whereby a homeless alcoholic is transformed into a geek, is perfectly ruthless, suggesting that Carlisle is exactly suited to this infernal milieu (one of the sideshow attractions is a funhouse representing Hell). But – with the warm presence of del Toro regular Ron Perlman and sweet eccentricity from Toni Collette as a seer and Rooney Mara as Molly the electrical girl – this tent-show turns out to be a haven for the oddballs, eccentrics and dreamers del Toro favours.

As in many del Toro films, the obvious monsters – like Enoch, the pickled Frankensteinian baby with an enlarged, perhaps inauthentic third eye – are innocents and the smoothly attractive characters are prodigies of cruelty. Freaks show their deformities openly; Lilith has to unbutton her tailored suit to show an ill-healed scar that suggests she’s survived being disembowelled by the brutal plutocrat (Richard Jenkins) Stan is out to rook. Straddling two worlds is the bloody-handed apparition of the mark’s long-dead lost love, which allows Mara a secondary role as the sort of snowbound spectre who haunted del Toro’s previous gothic noir pastiche Crimson Peak (2015). Cooper’s Stan, of course, is a vile individual whose only redemption is in accepting that geekdom is his just fate – but the carnival world he passes through is almost an idyll in the hands of del Toro, a director unable to resist more than a touch of magic.