At the ‘Nightmare Alley,’ the Circus Gets Pretty Dark

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Nightmare Alley (CREDIT: Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Straitharn, Holt McCallany, Mark Povinelli, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 150 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Gunfire and a Little Hanky Panky

Release Date: December 17, 2021 (Theaters)

If you can’t trust circus folk, who can you trust? Actually, if Nightmare Alley is to be believed, carnies are the only people who can be believed (well, most of them anyway). It’s everyone else who’s trying to pull one over on you. This movie is two and a half hours long, which is to say: it takes Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle way too long to realize the truth about Truth. That’s probably because he’s fooling himself.

The movie itself is pulling a trick on us as well. Considering its spooky title, and its writer-director, we’re primed for some horror, or at least something supernatural. But instead it’s a full-on noir thriller, with all the moral prisons, femmes fatales, and cigarettes to prove it. We first meet Stanton burning away his past, quite literally. Then he wanders into the local big tent, and it’s unclear if he actually has any plans for anything at this moment. Only later do his machinations come to the fore. He gets roped into a job, which at first pays him a mere 50 cents (it would have been a dollar if he hadn’t snuck into the geek show), but then that’s followed up by steadier employment at the next town, and soon enough he’s one of the top mentalists around. That trajectory eventually leads to him teaming up with a psychologist (Cate Blanchett) for a con to bilk some big, big money out of a rich man (Richard Jenkins) who’s overcome by Stan’s promises that he can commune with the dead. But of course, there’s enough doubt and double-crossing in the air for everything to go sideways.

By the end of the whole plot, Stan essentially circles back to his original destitute and anonymous status quo. I was struck by both the futility and durability of his con man nature. The Universe, or the Fates, or God or whatever, or simply the randomness of existence has decided that his deception can go only so far. And while his reach exceeding his grasp might send him down to rock bottom, he’ll find a way to survive in the gutter if he has to. But why not do it a little differently? If Stan were a real person, and he were my friend, I would remind him that he seems happiest when he’s just hanging out with the circus crew. He found a family, but the genre that he lives in has ensured that he’s a nowhere man who’s never fully at home anywhere.

Nightmare Alley is Recommended If You Like: Hucksters, Snow, Trenchcoats, Biting heads off chickens

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cold Reads

Scary Movie Reviews to Write in the Dark: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ Review

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CREDIT: CBS Films

In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Stella Nichols (Zoe Colletti) just needs to increase her speed and stamina a bit to make herself the perfect adversary to defeat a haunted book. She’s already a talented enough writer who knows how to get the truth out there. Anyway, on Halloween 1968, she and her friends stumble upon a tome in a creepy abandoned house that features macabre musings written in blood that come to life with deadly consequences. They’re penned from beyond by the deceased Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), who it turns out was abused by her own family after she attempted to reveal their dark secrets.

The underlying thematic schematic here is something to do with the unseemly secrets at the heart of America and how powerful folks often do their worst to keep inconvenient people quiet. That’s given resonant oomph by the Bellows’ black servant being the only thing close to a reliable witness and a time period that constantly places Tricky Dick Nixon’s presidential campaign on TVs in the background. The message is meaningful, but it perhaps could be synthesized more clearly. As for the monstrousness, the imagery is effective enough, what with a big white meatball creature that absorbs people and a massive swelling of the cheek that houses a swarm of spiders. I’m a little scared, and I’m motivated enough to say let’s get our skeletons out of the darkness.

I give Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark 3 Bloody Letters out of 5 Jangly Men.

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘The Shape of Water,’ Guillermo del Toro Re-Molds the Classic Creature Feature According to His Vision

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for Penetration From a Monster, Both of the Variety That Causes Massive Bleeding and Frustrated Profanity and the Kind That Results in Ecstasy

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)

If you are a fan of ’50s and ’60s creature features but wish that they concluded with the heroine and the monster consummating their love, then it should be not surprising to discover that you have a kindred spirit in Guillermo del Toro. With The Shape of Water, there is now proof of that truism in feature-length form.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman working as a custodian at a government research facility in 1962 Baltimore when an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset” (Doug Jones and a bunch of movie magic) is brought in from South America. With a condition that renders her an eternal outsider, it only makes thematic sense that Elisa would be drawn to The Asset. Now, my natural inclination would be to push against such a longstanding trope, but when one half of a coupling is a fantastical being, symbolic meanings are hard to avoid. And in this particular case, Elisa and The Asset’s attraction does appear to go deeper than their shared general abuse at the hands of society. Words cannot capture it, but it is undeniable that they see the world in compatible ways.

There are plenty of other sci-fi B-movie hallmarks blown out to full intensity to provide color around the monster shagging. As a colonel in charge of The Asset, Michael Shannon runs around barking orders at everybody, and I’m not sure if that’s more of a B-movie trademark or a Michael Shannon trademark, or just the perfect marriage of the two. As the lead scientist with a secret identity who wants to preserve The Asset, Michael Stuhlbarg gets a two-for-one deal of nuclear era tropes. Octavia Spencer, as another custodian and Elisa’s closest friend at work, does not necessarily fit into the mold of a classic creature feature character, but her presence is invaluable. And being that this is mid-century America, Richard Jenkins plays the tragically closeted artist; his story is saddest when he is no longer able to have any of his beloved diner-fresh slices of pie.

But this is Elisa and The Asset’s story through and through. Everything else is important, but in the grand scheme of things, they are all just in service of the lovingly shot, artfully composed, and almost too indulgent (but not quite) sex scenes. Let’s just say that Sally Hawkins is not shy. But hey, when you find love that is this real and unbridled, you owe it to yourself, like Elisa, to be rid of all timidity.

The Shape of Water is Recommended If You Like: Creature From the Black Lagoon but wish it had been more explicitly romantic

Grade: 4 out of 5 Slices of Key Lime Pie