Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro and Bradley Cooper’s latest release. Del Toro has hoped around different genres during his career as a filmmaker, with several of his films featuring spooky, supernatural elements that send shivers up your spine. By name alone, Nightmare Alley looks like a scary film, but don’t let the film’s title deceive you. 

Del Toro adapted the film from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. Nightmare Alley features a star-studded ensemble cast, and though it’s performed poorly in the box office, the film has gained positive reviews from critics. This piece contains some spoilers. 

Nightmare Alley is scary due to its realism

In August 2019, Del Toro spoke about his approach to Nightmare Alley. He dismissed the idea of tackling the entire book and talked up focusing on its darker elements. The famed producer promised a dark story:

“There are elements that are darker in the book. Now is the first chance I have to do a real underbelly of society type of movie. [There are] no supernatural elements. Just a straight, really dark story. [Nightmare Alley will be a] big R. Double R.”

Before the main character, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), utters a word in the film, we see his character drag a body across an empty home, throw it into a pit, and set the house on fire. It’s a spectacular start to a movie that draws the whole spectrum of emotions from its viewers. 

It’s easy to empathize with Stan as he joins the carnival following a difficult life growing up. His boyish charm, sharp wit, and good looks make him instantly likable. However, Stan has a manipulative, murderous, and alcoholic dark side, which doesn’t affect his ascent to the top of New York’s entertainment scene. 

Stan morphs into a mentalist dubbed The Great Stanton, who works with his girlfriend, Molly (Rooney Mara). Carlisle’s rise to the top involves deception: Stan is not that great a mentalist as he purports to be. 

The film lets the viewers know that Stan is a fraud, as it slowly builds the feeling that Stan’s conniving ways will catch up to him. Unlike the viewers, Stan doesn’t realize until it’s too late that the fires he’s lit along the way will now claim him victim. 

The movie culminates in a gruesome final act often seen in Del Toro’s films. The dread builds up throughout the film, turning the last scenes into a celebration of brutality that will make even the most hardcore of horror fans shudder. 

Nightmare Alley is scary because it is real. It tells a story about real things that happen to real people. Anyone without knowledge about the film’s basis might assume it’s based on a true story.

As Del Toro promised, there’s nothing supernatural about Nightmare Alley. Before you watch it, however, prepare for a real fright.