February 4, 2022 | LIFE | By Frances Thyer | Illustration by Iris Guo

Sitting downtown in Kimball’s Theater to watch “Nightmare Alley” is a terrifying experience. Within the first ten minutes you will undergo the very common, eerie reaction to any film set in a creepy, backwoods carnival: get out of there.

Observing a carnival through protagonist Stanton Carlisle’s eyes, you watch a horrifyingly sad sequence where an alcoholic captive bites off the heads of chickens for entertainment. The scene leaves you with a visceral discomfort about the carnival and anxiety for Stan, played by Bradley Cooper.

Guillermo del Toro, director of “Nightmare Alley” and films such as Academy Award winning “The Shape of Water,” is a master at creating this trepidation. As the carousel spins and Stan slowly devolves, repeated themes of time passing and eyes watching make every turning point even more anxiety-inducing.

After wanting to believe that Stan can make the right decisions, once the credits begin rolling you will think: “Oh, I could have known from the opening sequence that the protagonist was on this trajectory.” The beauty of “Nightmare Alley” is that the audience constantly wants to believe the best of Stan.

The first act of the film plays out in a traveling carnival run by Clem, a character with a skewed moral compass, who presents Stan as a somewhat normal guy. Molly, a performer with a focus on electricity, falls in love with Stan despite warnings that he may not be the person he seems to be, and ultimately, they make plans for an independent two-person act. The film then plays out in New York, where we are introduced to characters who will challenge your perception of right and wrong.

Cate Blanchett, playing the part of psychologist Lilith Ritter, has the especially important and effective role of the femme fatale. Her character, alongside the 1940s inspired production, compels you to want to watch the 1947 film noir adaption of the original book by William Lindsay Gresham. Del Toro’s lighting and color design makes the film a persuasive period piece. “Nightmare Alley” feels like a predecessor of the iconic American Horror Story season ‘Freak Show,’ set in an equally creepy country carnival in 1952.

Cooper plays the devolving magician prototype to a tee, reminding you of characters such as Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale in “The Prestige.” Especially since the narrative is told following Stan’s character, the audience is unsure of the line between real and impossible. At one moment, Stan is taking a lie detector test, and when asked if he is really a magician, his positive response appears truthful.

Lilith says to Stan, “you don’t fool people, they fool themselves.” With mystical undertones, it becomes clear that characters in “Nightmare Alley” are constantly eluded regardless of the acts or the carnival. As the audience, we are fooled by Stan’s psyche just like his magic show subjects.

At the beginning of the movie, Zeena, the psychic at the carnival, tells Stan: “don’t do the spook show.” It isn’t until later that we can see Stan’s life on a trajectory, and that in reality, he always has and always will be doing a show. Time is constantly catching up to him, a fugitive from himself and his own mistakes.

If you’re in the mood for a thriller with a nauseating ending, “Nightmare Alley” is worth a watch.

“Nightmare Alley” is playing in theaters now. It is available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max.

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