Nightmare Alley

Stan and Zeena

2021’s Nightmare Alley isn’t based on the 1947 film noir of the same name, so we’re told by various venerable authorities. Tell that to the judge. Even if it genuinely is a bona fide and honest reworking of the same source material, William Lindsay Gresham’s smash 1946 novel, even a quick look at the 1947 movie is enough to convince anyone that this Nightmare Alley has seen the older one, taken notes and then studied them hard.

This extends to the casting choices. These start with Bradley Cooper as the grifter who starts out as a nobody in a carnival, works his way to the top of showbiz with a mentalist routine, over-reaches himself and is suddenly chuted back to way lower than where he started. As both movies bring down the curtain, a broken Stanton Carlisle (Cooper here, Tyrone Power originally) is about to play the bottom of the bill, as The Geek, the booze-sodden, cage-dwelling half-man/half-beast who terrifies carnival crowds by dementedly biting the head off a live chicken.

Other roles go to read-acrosses of the original cast. Even down to hair colour in the case of the three significant women in Stan’s life. There’s Zeena the seen-it-all-dearie carnival seer who teaches Stan the carnival ropes, played by a blonde Toni Collette. Molly (dark-haired Rooney Mara), the sweet, innocent thing who runs off with Stan after he’s stolen the secrets to Zeena’s mentalist act. And Stan’s ultimate nemesis, blonde femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett in another of those vagina dentata roles).

It’s a Guillermo del Toro film and so a) it’s way too long, b) del Toro’s love of the elaborate picturesque often gets in the way of the drama and c) it cries out “Look, Ma, I’m making Cinema! Cinema! I tell you” from its opening shot to its last, the camera never still when it can be gliding, sliding, craning up and down, moving in and out.

Molly and Stan in a dressing room
Going up: Molly and Stan

Del Toro is one of world’s most luxuriant film-makers and Nightmare Alley is best approached as an exercise in visual spectacle. There is lots to enjoy at this level, though again the 1947 film is the noirish reference point. Considering how much money and computer whatnot del Toro has compared to 1947 director Edmund Goulding, you’d expect him to outgun the older director in every department. But interestingly, in the spectacular climax – when Stan’s mentalism almost bags him a fortune courtesy of a desperate rich magnate (Richard Jenkins) who wants a glimpse of his dead daughter – Goulding leaves del Toro sprawling in the dust.

Tyrone Power was the original star and though he made the film to get away from being typecast as a horny pirate or a strapping caballero, the camera of Goulding (and ace DP Lee Garmes) repeatedly got right up in his face for massive shots of Power’s pert features. Del Toro and DP Dan Laustsen (who also worked on The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak, though his best work is on the remarkable-looking Norwegian film Headhunters) also go large, and there are some fabulous close-ups, Bradley Cooper fans, particularly when Stan is dealing with brittley sexy shrink Dr Lilith. This really is a film that’s worth seeing on as big a screen as you can possibly manage, assuming you believe (sorry, Martin Scorsese, who took out adverts imploring people to go out and see it) that it’s worth seeing at all.

No, I didn’t like it much. It’s half an hour longer than the original, which is also too long, and has exactly the same arc, hits the same plot beats and yet manages to drain almost all of the drama out on its journey. Is this Stanton a wrong’un, as the original made clear? Or just a drifter who doesn’t know when to say “enough”? Del Toro doesn’t seem sure, and the soundtrack by Nathan Johnson reinforces that impression with its relentless stuf-stuff-stuffstuffstuff-is-about-to-happen vamping. Stuff does happen, but most of it doesn’t mean a stuff.

There’s one great moment in it, one genius del Toro sequence reminding us of how good he can be, right after Stanton has been exposed as the terrible fraud he is, has committed a couple of bloody crimes in rapid succession and is then driving away like the wind through a snowy night. In lights, camera and action, Del Toro catches the desperate, droomed drama of the moment. All his guns are suddenly firing in the same direction. Like the car, the movie suddenly seems to be motoring. Too late. Ten minutes later Nightmare Alley is all over.

Nightmare Alley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Pan’s Labyrinth

Doug Jones as the pale man in Pan's Labyrinth

It’s not every fantasy film that comes complete with a scene of a brutal fascist captain sewing his own face up, but that’s what you get in Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since The Devil’s Backbone (better, certainly, than Blade II and Hellboy). It’s a dark fantasy reminding us that the Grimm brothers’ original tales were cautionary and soaked in violence and full of the sort of dirty psychological motivation that Disney flirted with in Snow White and Pinocchio. However this youthful experimentation wasn’t to last, and as with the pot reefer and student politicians, Disney, it seems, never actually inhaled. More’s the pity.

No such cutes or evasiveness here, where things start off like some Iberian Alice in Wonderland suffused with the smell of boot leather and cordite, Ivana Baquero playing Ofelia, an 11-year-old stepdaughter (of said fascist captain) who is informed by a goat-faced faun one night that she is in fact not a poor semi-abandoned waif, but a princess. But to ascend to her underworld throne (if that isn’t a contradiction) she must first complete three tasks. The bonus is that she’ll also be re-united with her real father. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Franco regime has won the civil war but skirmishing continues, and even Ofelia’s household is politically divided. And her mother, heavily, hideously pregnant, is struggling in an airless upstairs room to propel the progeny of the remarkably unpleasant officer out of her uterus.

Menace hangs over everything – even the apparently benign faun comes equipped with horns. Some sort of a devil? An allegory of the choice being offered to the apolitical Spaniard, maybe, who was being asked to judge between the competing claims of falangists and republicans – both of whom have killed people? At another level, Del Toro is part of a trend against realism in recent film-making. The Dogme 95 boys Von Trier (The Idiots), Vinterberg (Festen), Levring (The King Is Alive) and Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune aka Mifune’s Last Song) until this point were one of the few shows in town when it comes to formal experimentation – Dogme 95 films being characterised by lack of artificial light, soundtrack, fancy editing.

Lack is the last thing you’ll get in Pan’s Labyrinth. It is exotic, heady and artful, unafraid of excess, a baroque fantasy informed by the overheated look of films by other Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) but also brushed by an almost extinct strand of European fantasy – Powell and Pressburger in the UK, Cocteau in France, Murnau in Germany, Švankmajer in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic or the work that Francesco Stefani did on the East German TV fantasy The Singing Ringing Tree. It’s this mix of the fantastical, the bloody, the vital and the terrifying that makes Pan’s Labyrinth what it is. And not a whiff of whimsy in sight, praise be.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Buy it/watch it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006





Pan’s Labyrinth

Doug Jones as the pale man in Pan's Labyrinth


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



4 December



Francisco Franco born, 1892

On this day in 1892, Francisco Franco y Bahamonde was born. He’d later style himself Generalísimo, or Caudillo, of Spain while he ruled the country, from 1939 to 1975.

From a military family, Franco was the youngest general in Europe in the 1920s, and rose rapidly through the ranks. With the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of a Republic in 1931, the monarchist conservative Franco became increasingly marginalised and in 1936 he led a coup against the elected government. With help from Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany Franco prevailed in the civil war that followed, and went on to set up a fascist state that endured for decades longer than the regimes of his patrons.

In spite of his monarchical beliefs Franco did not restore the monarch, though he did restore the monarchy (a cute touch), preferring to set himself up as de facto king of Spain. He did however, years down the line, nominate Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of previous king of Spain, Alfonso XIII, as his successor.

Franco was a religious conservative who favoured Catholicism, and dealt with “communists” (anyone who disagreed with him) by putting them in concentration camps. He formed alliances with the West, who saw him as a bulwark against the advances of the Red menace, but was eventually forced to liberalise and open up his economy. After years of dirt-poverty, this was enough to generate a steady rise in living standards, the so-called Spanish Miracle.

In sync with the economic cycle he’d generated, Franco was able to hold on to his health only as long as the economy prospered, and in 1975 he died, just as Spain’s economy was tanking along with most Western economies unprepared for the hikes in the price of crude that came with the “oil shocks” of the 1970s.

His successor, Juan Carlos, immediately and, to Franco supporters, shockingly, started to dismantle the oppressive apparatus of Europe’s most successful fascist and engineered Spain’s move towards democracy.




Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir: Guillermo del Toro)

Though the fascists of Franco’s Spain were in power for longer than either Mussolini’s or Hitler’s, longer even than Salazar’s in next-door Portugal, they do not appear regularly on screen. Nazis work better as off-the-peg demons, and the Italian as an easy enemy is complicated by the fact that the country switched sides as the Second World War progressed. As for Portugal, it was so isolated that few people outside the country have heard of Salazar, even now. Guillermo Del Toro goes some way towards addressing the Spanish imbalance in his fierce fantasy taking an often candy-floss genre and imbuing it with all the discomfiting rationale you find in the original stories of the brothers Grimm.

We’re in Franco’s Spain, a place of brutality and ignorance, where Ofelia, a bookish young girl is living in an uneasy relationship with her new stepfather, a fascist army officer who has married her mother because she was hot, and certainly not because she comes with an inconvenient daughter. To escape the rejection, the danger, the daughter creates a world of the imagination, in which she is the princess of an underground kingdom, or at least she is according to the faun and the fairy who arrive to act as gatekeepers to this world. Meanwhile, above ground, by day, the anti-fascist forces are skittering about at the edges of Ofelia’s world, hoping to launch some sort of fight back against an enemy who now has his feet under the table in more ways than one – her mother is pregnant with the stepfather’s child, Ofelia’s replacement.

After so many years of films informed first by the kitchen sink, then by the social concerns of European arthouse, the Dogme movement, and finally the new miserabilism of mumblecore, it is a relief to see Guillermo Del Toro let rip with an out and out fantasy, and one that is so well conceived. And it works better than some Del Toro movies, the arch Hellboy or the chaotic Pacific Rim, because it contrasts its dark fantasy against something much darker – war, fascism, brutal, meaty reality. And yet the worlds blend at the edges, as gothic worlds do, as they did in Del Toro’s fabulous The Devil’s Backbone. Pan’s Labyrinth is a swirling paella of prosthetics, puppets, CGI, brilliant production design and Guillermo Navarro’s dark yet vivid cinematography.



Why Watch?


  • A rare cinematic outing for Franco’s Spain
  • Oscars for cinematography, art direction and make-up
  • A fairy tale for adults
  • A frightening Sergi López as the brutal father-in-law


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Pan’s Labyrinth – buy it/watch it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate