NIGHTMARE ALLEY is an updated version of a dark 1946 novel. A con man named Stanton, who let his father die a horrible death, begins working at a second-rate carnival. When the carnival’s friendly but alcoholic mentalist dies from accidental alcohol poisoning, the man’s unfaithful wife gives Stan the elaborate code book they used in their vaudeville days. Stan leaves with one of the young carnival women. Two years later, they have a successful mentalist act at a Buffalo nightclub. However, Stan runs into a seductive blonde psychiatrist who helps him bilk a rich client with a fake séance.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a striking production, with superb performances. It’s basically a morality tale about a man whose selfish ambition and pride get the better of him. As such, it’s a tragedy, but it’s a dark tragedy. Sadly, NIGHTMARE ALLEY has lots of strong foul language. It also contains some very disturbing scenes of violence, scenes of implied adultery, brief occult content, nudity, and a politically correct, leftist view of America. So, despite some positive moral lessons, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a bit excessive.
Dominant Worldview and Other Worldview Content/Elements:
Dark morality tale with some strong amoral behavior about a con man who deliberately stood by while his sick elderly father died from an open window and who decides to pretend to be able to communicate with dead people so he can bilk rich men out of their money, but he gets his comeuppance when things go awry, though he ends up killing two other men, plus a dark and disturbing, implicitly politically correct depiction of America and the American Dream, and woman gives a Tarot Card reading to the lead male character, but he turns the negative third card around so that it appears positive to the woman but, of course, the card now give the man himself a negative reading, so the card foreshadows his fall even more strongly (ultimately, the scene is the one scene in the movie that validates the “truth” of the occult use of Tarot Cards)
About 14 obscenities (including eight “f” words and three or so “s” words), three GD profanities, one Jesus profanities, and seven light profanities)
Two or three very disturbing scenes of violence, other disturbing bits of violence, and some strong violence includes a crazed man appears to bite off the head of a chicken in a freak show, a man deliberately hits another man with his car and then backs the car up and deliberately runs over his body again, woman pretends to be electrocuted in an electric chair in a carnival act, man is shot dead, and another man is wounded by a bullet in one violent scene, man opens a window during the winter night and lets his sickly elderly father die in his bed from the blistering wind while he sits nearby wrapped in blankets, the son then sets the body and house on fire, middle-aged woman mourning the death of her son and fooled by a fake spiritualist decides to shoot her husband dead and then turns the gun on herself, and a woman pretends to be the ghost of a woman who died from a botched abortion and shows up outside at night with blood on the front of her white dress
Implied adulterous sex in one scene when married woman reaches her hand into a man’s bath water while her husband’s away and implied adulterous sex when unmarried woman opens her blouse to reveal the space between her breasts and married man kisses her chest there
Brief male genital nudity obscured by water after man takes off his clothes and hops into the tub and upper and rear male nudity, plus woman reveals a scar under her breasts
Alcohol use, drunkenness, and an important side character is an alcoholic
Smoking and/or Drug Use and Abuse:
Smoking, and man confesses he will spike an alcoholic bum’s drink with opium to get him to go crazy and actually bite off the heads of chickens as a carnival act; and,
Deceit, lying, betrayal, cheating.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY is an updated version of a dark 1946 novel about a con man who goes from working at a second-rate carnival to doing a high-class mentalist act, then becoming a fake spiritualist preacher, but the new movie skips the preacher part and goes straight into the con man’s attempt to bilk a rich man who’s still grieving over the accidental death of his mistress years ago. NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a brilliantly realized, film noir morality tale, but the dark story contains lots of strong foul language, implied adultery and brief occult content and adds some really disturbing violence that’s not in the book.
Set in 1939 at the advent of World War II, the movie opens with Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, stuffing a plastic wrapped body into a hole in the attic of an isolated prairie farmhouse. He then sets fire to the hole and the house and leaves.
Stan makes his way to a city, where he follows a dwarf into a second-rate carnival. He’s angrily greeted by the strongman, Bruno, and the dwarf, called Major Mosquito, who are talking to a pretty black-haired woman named Molly. He turns away and starts wandering through the carnival, where he visits into an act featuring the carnival’s “geek.” As explained later by the carnival manager, a geek is an alcoholic bum picked off the street who’s given money to pretend to be crazy and bite the heads of chickens, using a razor blade. Then, however, he’s given more and more alcohol, but this time laced with opium, so that he ends up actually crazy and biting off the heads of chickens for real.
Stan ends up with a job as a roustabout, a semiskilled laborer, for the carnival. He also takes up with Zeena, the carnival’s mentalist, who’s married to an alcoholic who used to have a thriving mentalist act in vaudeville. However, Stan’s more interested in the younger Molly. He thinks of a way to improve her act, which involves tricks with electricity based on Nikolas Tesla’s inventions.
The movie reveals that Stan is troubled by nightmares of what he did before he joined the carnival. Viewers learn that the man he buried in the floorboards was his elderly father, whom Stan hated. While his father lay terribly ill in bed, opened a window and wrapped himself in blankets while his father died a horrible death. This nightmarish flashback reveals that Stan isn’t above taking a life if he must.
Stan learns that Zeena’s husband, Pete, developed an elaborate written code system for the old mentalist act that he and Zeena once had. Pete implies that he started to believe his act and pretended to give people real messages from their dead loved ones. “People get hurt” when you do that, Pete tells Stan. So, he refuses to let Stan look at the book containing the written code. The temptation to use the code outside of your act is just too dangerous.
One day, after her act, a woman comes up to Zeena to inquire more about the messages she received from her dead relative. However, Zeena tells her the truth, that it was all a trick. As Zeena and Pete advise Stan, it’s not good to actually pretend, outside of the act or backstage, that you can actually communicate with dead people. People will get hurt.
One night, Zeena’s not there, and Pete begs Stan to get him a bottle of the geek whiskey from the carnival manager’s tent. Stan sneaks into the tent and grabs a bottle, but the bottle turns out to be a bottle of wood alcohol that the manager uses for cleaning, and Pete dies from drinking.
Perhaps out of revenge, Zeena lets Stan have the code book, and Stan finally convinces Molly to run away with him and start their own mentalist act. Sure enough, two years later, Stan and Molly are married and are performing a highly successful nightclub act. One night, a beautiful blonde from the audience tries to expose “The Great Stanton,” but Stan gives an accurate cold reading of her, foiling her plan. After the show, the woman reveals she’s a psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter, who was employed by a rich middle-aged judge to see if Stan was real. The judge is now convinced Stan is real and offers to pay Stan a lot of money if he sets up a séance for him and his wife so they can talk to their dead son. To Molly’s consternation, Stan agrees. Meanwhile, Stan cajoles Molly into agreeing to help him hold the séance.
The next day, Stan visits Lilith at her fancy office. There’s clearly an attraction between them, though Lilith likes to tease him and manages to entice Stan to let her analyze him right there. Stan opens up to her, tells her about his feelings of guilt over accidentally giving Pete the poisoned alcohol. He also reveals to her that he hated his father, though he doesn’t tell her about how his father died. During their meeting, Stan convinces Lilith to give him some inside information about the judge and his wife to use in the séance, to bilk the judge out of even more money.
The judge’s séance goes well. So, Lilith and Stan agree to bilk an even more powerful, richer man who’s still mourning the death of his mistress years ago after she died of a botched abortion that the man forced her to get. Complications ensue, however, putting Stan and Molly’s life in danger.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a striking production headed by talented but often perverse Spanish director and writer Guillermo Del Toro. The acting performances are also really good, and the movie has an evocative mood throughout, despite its longer than usual running time.
Basically, the story is a morality tale about a man whose selfish ambition and pride get the better of him. As such, it’s a tragedy, but it’s a dark tragedy that has the edginess of a modern film noir. Because of its edgy film noir roots, NIGHTMARE ALLEY isn’t the kind of movie that has a happy resolution. That said, in the final scene, the tragic antihero does indeed realize how far he has fallen.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY has lots of strong foul language, including some “f” words and strong profanities. There’s also some very disturbing scenes of violence, scenes of implied adultery, brief explicit male nudity, and a politically correct, leftist view of America and the American Dream.
Finally, though the movie shows that occult practices such as mind reading, fortune telling and communicating with the dead are false, one scene validates the occult use of Tarot Cards. In that scene, Zeena gives Stan a reading of three Tarot Cards. The first two cards are innocuous, but the third card shows a man hanging from a tree. Thus, to foreshadows Stan’s ultimate fall at the end of Nightmare Alley. However, Stan turns the card upside down so that it appears to Zeena that the man is just standing under the tree. Smugly, he tells Zeena that the card now shows a positive outcome for his life. Not so fast, Mr. Con Man! Though the Tarot Card now shows a positive outcome to Zeena, it still shows a negative outcome to Stan, if viewed from his perspective. And, that’s exactly how the card also now appears to the viewer watching the movie. Thus, this scene is the one scene in the whole movie that contends that occult practices can be real, in this case the use of Tarot Cards to predict the future.
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