Nightmare Alley (2021)

“Folks here, they don’t make no never mind who you are or what you done.”

The first shot in Guillermo Del Toro’s Depression-era noir movie NIGHTMARE ALLEY is of Bradley Cooper dragging a wrapped-up corpse into frame. It reminded me of the teaser trailer for THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (2007). That was not a good movie, but it was a great teaser, so when a best picture nominee reminds me of it, that’s pretty impressive. If BELFAST or THE POWER OF THE DOG started out like the legendary Lady in the Lake teaser for LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III they would move up a notch for me, personally.

Cooper’s character Stan is inside a small house in disrepair, and he drops the body into a hole in the floorboards, puts on his coat and hat, takes a moment to contemplate and light a cigarette, sets the place on fire and leaves. If anybody walked into the movie exactly two minutes and saw him on a bus out of town they probly spent a good chunk of the movie thinking he was a good ol’ salt of the earth everyman trying to survive day-to-day through hard, humble work. The rest of us had to watch him very unsettled, wondering what he’s up to, questioning the sincerity of everything he says or does. ‘Cause you can never fully trust a corpse dragger.

You know Cooper from THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN or THE A-TEAM, but he has a side hustle as a respectable actor, having been nominated for Oscars for THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE, AMERICAN SNIPER and A STAR IS BORN. One thing that’s cool about NIGHTMARE ALLEY is that it teams up Oscar nominees Cooper, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe and Richard Jenkins, plus Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and 2008 Scream Award for Best Fantasy Actor and Best Superhero Ron Perlman to star in a grim period thriller with a budget similar to something like LONDON HAS FALLEN. Del Toro (BLADE II) has followed an unusual path: winning best picture for a movie about a lady kidnapping a monster from a lab and fucking him in her bath tub because he knows how to ask for more eggs, then cashing in the clout that earned him to make his first ever movie that’s just a straight drama with no monsters or ghosts. That sounds like a bummer, but I think this is the first time since PAN’S LABYRINTH that one of his movies hit me as hard as I wanted it to. I’ve liked everything he’s done, but it’s been a while since I’ve loved one. This one I loved.

Adapted by Del Toro and film critic/his wife Kim Morgan, it’s a story that had me rapt right away. I don’t think we hear Stan say a word for more than ten minutes. He wakes up when the (midnight meat) bus hits the end of the line. In town he does a double take when a 3’ 9 1/2” man (Mark Povinelli, BEER FOR MY HORSES, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS) walks past him. Then we follow Stan as he follows the poor guy to his job at a carnival. We see him seeing the people who will become his life for a while. He lights up when he sees Molly (Rooney Mara, Classroom Girl #1, URBAN LEGENDS: BLOODY MARY) walking with her possessive father figure Bruno (Ron Perlman, POLICE ACADEMY: MISSION TO MOSCOW). Then he turns his attention to the barker Clem (Willem Dafoe, SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) and follows the crowd into a sideshow tent to look down into a pit and watch a geek (Paul [not p.t. or W.S.] Anderson, LEGEND, THE REVENANT, 24 HOURS TO LIVE, HOSTILES, ROBIN HOOD) bite a chicken.

Sneaking off to avoid paying his twenty-five cent cover charge, Stan runs into Bruno in an employees only area and accidentally gets a job helping take down tents. That leads to selling Clem a radio, which leads to being around when the geek escapes and being the one to find him cowering in the funhouse.

I think this is the first time Stan really talks. He says, “Hey pal, everybody’s lookin for ya. I’m not gonna blow the whistle, you didn’t do nothin against me. Why don’tchya come on out? Come on, I’m not gonna hurt ya.” He seems very sincere. He might be sincere. But the geek hits him with a rock so a second later he choke slams him and clubs him on the head so hard Clem worries he’s gonna kill him.

Stan uses his night’s pay to buy a bath, available for a dime from the psychic, Madam Zeena (Toni Collette, xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE). Note that that’s less than half the price of watching a dude kill a chicken. And for that price Stan also gets some lovin and a job as her assistant. Also he meets her husband Pete (David Strathairn, THE TEMPEST), who drinks too much to help much with the act but invented all the tricks and later starts teaching them to Stan. Demonstrating the technique on Stan, Pete freaks him out by guessing he has issues with his father.

“How’d you know about my father, though?” Stan asks.

“That’s a stock answer. It’s a black rainbow. One size fits all.”

In other words, you ain’t that special, kid. You’re just another mark.

But he’s determined to make something of himself, and of Molly. She does an act involving electrical current – he sketches up an idea to spruce it up with a prop electric chair, and they get close enough that Bruno threatens him with the “five good pounds of meat and bone” at the end of his arm. Says he promised her old man, a legendary grifter, that he’d take care of her.

The thing is, Stan is such a questionable individual that I wondered if he knows something about this grifter, came to this carnival on purpose, that’s why he eyed Molly immediately, why he came circling, and will eventually lure her away to do a high class mentalism act with him in the city. Most of these types of thoughts will not pan out, but I appreciate the discomfort of following this anti-hero, feeling an instinct to want to watch him achieve whatever he’s trying to achieve, but also worrying what the fuck he might be up to. The American dream, a scam, or both.

He does, at times, seem like he might have a conscience. Clem speaks in hushed tones but smiles with pride when he shares the trade secret of how to create a geek, which involves finding a wino and getting him hooked on opium. “Jesus. Poor soul,” Stan says. But we can only guess how much he means it.

Of course Del Toro – with cinematographer Dan Laustsen (MIMIC, SILENT HILL, JOHN WICK 2-4) and production designer Tamara Deverell (FIREHOUSE DOG) – makes the carnival look incredible. This movie made me realize that there are directors who will take any opportunity to put a funhouse in their movie and then make it look like the coolest funhouse you’ve ever seen, and that I tend to like those directors.

It’s not just the gaudy portable artifice they carry around that has a beautiful ugliness to it – it’s also the dirt and water on the grounds around them. This is a movie full of stormy nights, lots of excess water dripping off of fedoras, tents and the roof of the carousel, and endless steam raising off of everything.

And then it’s sunbeams reflecting on the wet boardwalk the next day, Clifton Collins Jr. (FORTRESS) strumming a guitar, Molly watching the Snake Man (Troy James – Baba Yaga from the non-Del Toro HELLBOY) do a contortionist dance. Just a nice morning or early afternoon hanging out before work. The kind of thing that maybe makes this work worthwhile.

Then Stan and Molly leave for entirely different surroundings, doing their high class mentalism act (based on tricks purloined from Pete under sinister circumstances) for rich people in a fancy hotel ballroom in Buffalo. With a mustache now, wearing a tux, faking an accent. It’s two years later, he’s not being so sweet to her anymore, and she clearly misses her family at the carnival. I like when they come to visit – they bring a pet rabbit, but dress up nice, know how to fit in, are not afraid to indulge in the multiple platters from room service, and somehow seem wholesome and ethical compared to the bullshit around here.

Zeena’s trying to give Stan advice, because Molly’s worried about him. He’s recently met his match in Lilith, a psychologist who figured out some of their tricks and tried to embarrass him at a show. He outsmarted her, though, so her friend Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill, RABID, RENEGADES, BODY PARTS, SHE NEVER DIED) is convinced he’s for real and can help him communicate with his dead son.

Going against everything he was taught at the carnival, Stan starts doing these “spook shows” for Lilith’s elite clients, convincing her to give him information on them in exchange for letting her have therapy and hypnotism sessions with him. (All of this is very unethical!) Parallels are drawn between therapy and mentalism, but interestingly I don’t think psychiatry comes out looking like a scam. It’s more like Pete’s method was just a crude take off on psychiatry. Because maybe most young men do have an issue with their father, and definitely most older people deal with some sort of loss, just like he said. But Lilith, we hope, uses this information to heal people, not to fleece them.

The more dishonorable Stan gets, the more human he starts to seem. Because it becomes clear that this is not some masterful con he’s been working since the beginning. It’s just another guy cheating to get ahead and fucking himself over irreparably. Claiming he’s doing it for Molly no matter how much she doesn’t want him to do it, no matter how right she obviously is that he shouldn’t. Normal human weakness. A stock answer, a black rainbow, one size fits all.

I’ve never read the book by William Lindsay Gresham or seen the 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power, but there was definitely a point in the last stretch of this where I realized (SPOILER) “Oh shit, he’s gonna become the geek at the end.” I don’t know whether that’s meant to be a shocking twist or if you’re supposed to see it coming, but it worked really well for me the latter way, since we’ve seen this bastard pushing his luck further and further ever since we saw him disposing of that corpse. Taking it too far, going too big, dragging his own body into that hole and lighting the house on fire. It’s like watching in slow motion as he launches a motorcycle off a jump and we see the brick wall he’s gonna smack right into in the distance getting closer and closer, bigger and bigger. And it’s not a “Saw that coming, big deal” type letdown, because when he realizes his fate, it’s the one really outsized bit of acting from Cooper in the movie. It’s perfect. (Forgetting that he wasn’t nominated for best actor I thought I was gonna have to warn everybody to see this before the Oscars because you know they would’ve used the final shot of the movie as his clip!)

I’ve heard the earlier movie version is great, and the book sounds good too. The author, Gresham, was born in Baltimore, but in his early 30s he moved to Spain and volunteered as a medic for the Loyalist forces. That’s where he became friends with a former sideshow employee whose stories inspired him to write his novel Nightmare Alley (1946) and a non-fiction book called Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1954). He also co-wrote with James Randi Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959) before switching it up a little with The Book of Strength: Body Building the Safe, Correct Way (1961). (In my opinion Cooper should’ve had to pump up to John Cena size to play the role, but that’s my only complaint.)

It sounds like Gresham’s life somewhat mirrored the harrowing twists and turns of his fiction. After his adventures in the Spanish Civil War and surviving tuberculosis and a suicide attempt, he suddenly got a bunch of money right after the book was published, because Tyrone Power got the studio to buy the rights. But the author was an alcoholic and a cheater and when his wife, the poet Joy Davidman, let her cousin stay in their New York mansion while she was out of the country, Gresham decided to be with the cousin instead. Davidman had been visiting her favorite author turned penpal C.S. Lewis, who she later married. She’s played by Debra Winger in the movie SHADOWLANDS.

In conclusion, watch BLADE II again, but also watch NIGHTMARE ALLEY!

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 24th, 2022 at 1:20 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

44 Responses to “Nightmare Alley (2021)”

  1. Most watchable, but still only merely okay, GdT movie in decades.

  2. Really felt like Bradley Cooper is just not an interesting enough actor to make this role cut as deep as it ought to. He’s fine, giving a perfectly good, professional performance, but I never really got the why of his character out of it, and at least in Del Toro’s 150-minute version of it, this story seems like it needs a why to give it enough meat. “Daddy issues” isn’t really going to cut it.

    Vern, you mentioned the last shot — I think Cooper delivers the line well enough, but what did you make of Del Toro letting it linger, like, a full 45 seconds longer than you’d expect? Seemed like insanity to me. Get the pithy last line in, grab a quick expression shot, smash cut to credits while it still stings, I say. I enjoyed the movie overall but I felt like it could really have benefitted from a tighter edit that kept it lean and mean.

  3. RE the mention of the 1947 version… That is a great freaking movie, even with its [SPOILER] tacked-on sort-of-happy ending, which I was pleased to see was NOT part of the Del Toro version.

    The performances in the 1947 version are very different – much more grounded, not as stylized and heightened as they are here. And Tyrone Power is great. He’s manic, grinning, desperate to ingratiate himself with everyone around him in order to then exploit them in some way. To me it feels like he really NEEDS to scam, which I didn’t 100% get from Bradley Cooper.

    I admire Guillermo Del Toro because he has made near-flawless cinematic masterpieces such as PACIFIC RIM (no sarcasm). And every shot in the GDT version looks totally amazing, beautifully designed and shot and full of creepy details that I can picture the director carefully placing by hand around the set. But between the 2 I am somewhat surprised to give the nod to the 1947 film.

  4. Subtlety – No, I thought the length of the shot was perfect. The back and forth between laughing and crying, the pain in his eyes, the attempt to cover it. I don’t think it would have been as unsettling or enigmatic if it didn’t go that long.

  5. RE the mention of the 1947 version… That is a great freaking movie, even with its [SPOILER] tacked-on sort-of-happy ending, which I was pleased to see was NOT part of the Del Toro version.

    I’ve seen the ’47 version (which is indeed great). and read the book (also great), but have a hard time bringing myself to watch this one. I think it’s because I really can’t think of any reason for it’s existence. Other than to not have a “tacked-on sort-of-happy ending” (which the book also does not). But really…


    I could never understand what’s “sort-of-happy” about becoming Pete?

  6. jojo, doesn’t the Tyrone Power version end with him a, yes, becoming a geek, b, yes, freaking out and running amok like the earlier geek… but then c, finding himself in a calm and happy embrace with the woman who loves him despite it all?

    At least, that’s how I remember it…

  7. I thought the trailers sold the movie as a horror film and not as a film noir. I was positive this was actually a warewolf movie for the longest time until it came out lol

  8. I thought the trailers sold the movie as a horror film and not as a film noir. I was positive this was actually a warewolf movie for the longest time until it came out lol

  9. I thought this was just superb, and I think I agree that it’s probably his best since Pan’s Labyrinth, but I also really enjoy Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim a lot more than most folks around here. And I thought Cooper did a phenomenal job. I think I’ve been taking him for granted, but even in movies that I wasn’t crazy about, he puts in great performances. It’s hard to say that he’s underrated since he’s had a couple of Oscar nominations, but I guess I always forget how good he is.


    I read the book, so I knew what was coming the entire time, but Cooper’s reaction and the way that Del Toro lingers on him has stuck with me since I watched the movie.


    I also love how in some way the circus family is simultaneously wholesome and pretty fucked up. They depend on each other and life each other up, but they also have a geek living among them who is basically enslaved, and they just sort of accept it.

  10. Mr. Subtlety: I thought del Toro was lingering on Cooper’s line delivery in that final scene to distinguish it from Power’s wry, defeated acceptance, the most famous moment from the Goulding version. And I’d agree it works better in the earlier film, though I still like del Toro’s a lot.

    I don’t know. Those baroque carnival sets look fantastic, but they work against the shabby seediness we need in the opening half. On the other hand, Willem Dafoe is great, with an incredible monologue drawn fairly closely from the book, and of course del Toro isn’t forced into the tacked-on ending of the ’47 version. The ’47 is better, but watch them both.

  11. Ben C.: In the Goulding version, the implication of the ending is that Stanton is temporarily safe, but that he and Molly will probably wind up like Pete and Zeena. It still feels artificial, but it’s not ridiculously cheery.

  12. And here it is, the movie I am again I total synch with our host.
    “I think this is the first time since PAN’S LABYRINTH that one of his movies hit me as hard as I wanted it to. I’ve liked everything he’s done, but it’s been a while since I’ve loved one. This one I loved.”
    If I was writing how I felt about this movies, those exact words would be the ones I’d use. I LOVED this. Every minute, every second, every actor, everything. It clicked for me and from the first till the last minute I was” in”, maybe more so than any movie I’ve seen this year so far.

  13. Matthew B.: Count me in the ‘like, not loved’ camp for this, but hell if I won’t go to bat for GdT’s fantastic production design. I think we’ve had so many movies that trade in boring, quasi-realistic mediocrity–from the new Star Wars fleshy brown blob aliens to the Batman’s fetal-alcohol-syndrome takes on Penguin and the Joker–that it’s honestly a relief to see a director trying and succeeding in making his movie look cool as shit.

    And it’s not that hard to explain. I think del Toro’s trying to present the world of the carnival as it would’ve looked to the non-jaded eyes of your average 1930ser. If someone from today literally went back in time, they wouldn’t see Rooney Mara with dazzling electricity effects all around her, it would probably be something way more chintzy, but to the characters in the movie, it would look stunning. The same way you remember video games in your childhood as being incredibly realistic and engaging, but when you go back and play them again, you see it’s just a bunch of pixels. And I think GdT is still way more restrained and non-distracting in his visuals than your average Baz Luhrmann joint. I think he successfully characterizes the carnival both as a place where Stan *could* be content and enjoy life, but also as somewhere he would want to transcend and leave behind.

  14. OK, I’ll be the piss-on-the-parade guy. I HAAAAATED this movie. Maybe it looked good in a theater, but watching it on my laptop it looked like three hours of video game cutscenes. So CGId and polished it didn’t even seem to be taking place on Earth; none of it had any gravity. Cooper’s performance was weak, and too Hollywood-ized by half – he’s supposed to be a starving Depression grifter, but he’s as jacked as a superhero in every frame.

    I’ve never seen the original, but I’ve read the book, and the book is 500 times darker than this. Even when Del Toro adapts a noir classic, deep inside he still wants to tell fairy tales. He hasn’t made a movie I’d watch again since HELLBOY.

  15. What were the CGI parts? Like in the city? I’m sure there’s tons of digital mattes and stuff, but I don’t remember noticing anything.

  16. I loved this movie. I don’t know why, but usually Del Toro movies are sort of arm’s length from me. I always like them, but except for Blade 2 I see it once and that’s enough, I don’t find hem great or something to revisit…and even Blade 2 isn’t nearly as good as Blade for me. It’s got more action, but cartoonier and such and I like the more hard hitting first one. Is it his fantasy stuff, which is not a fav genre of mine? Or the comic book stuff which isn’t either? But even his more dramatic films I like but only so much.

    This is the first movie he did where I was totally onboard and have seen it twice already. Love the look, love the acting, everything.

    I always wish I liked his movies more, but I’m still a huge fan of the GUY…he’s out there making monster movies and not being apologetic about them and doing them with class and style. And what a speaker he is.

  17. Oh and I haven’t read the book either and maybe it’s darker, but at least THIS version has the proper ending and not the bullshit Power one. So I guess if the book is way worse, maybe after the fourth redo it will be really filthy.

  18. This is probably my favorite Del Toro movie. Devil’s Backbone might be #2. I felt like he hit the right balance here of being GDT and serving the material.

    Love the 1947 (“Every boy has a dog” is quoted with much regularity in these parts). IMO it makes a great double feature with Hangover Square.

    The original novel is about as dark as it gets. Even as someone who loves the story I find it a little too much.

  19. jojo, doesn’t the Tyrone Power version end with him a, yes, becoming a geek, b, yes, freaking out and running amok like the earlier geek… but then c, finding himself in a calm and happy embrace with the woman who loves him despite it all?

    At least, that’s how I remember it…

    Yes, he comes back a drunk and ‘the geek’
    Yes, Molly takes him back
    BUT, that’s EXACTLY the story Zeena tells about her and Pete. He runs off, comes back a drunk and ‘the geek’ and she takes him back. So Stan has become Pete, and Molly has become Zeena.

    So if Pete and Zeena were “happily ever after” then yeah, I guess…

  20. Vern –

    Like I said, maybe it comes from watching it on a laptop instead of in a theater, but the whole thing looked like it had been shot on green screens and given 100 coats of digital polish. It all looked completely fake to me, even the outdoors stuff.

  21. I caught the 1947 Tyrone Power version on TCM a few months back, and saw this a couple weeks ago. I liked them about the same. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. I think I was more into the carny stuff in the 1947 one– I liked learning the ins and outs of the con game. The 2021 version was stronger in the back half, though I did like Willem Dafoe and his collection of pickled fetuses. I liked that this new one had the freedom to be darker, meaner, and more violent than the ’47 film. However, there’s a good hobo scene toward the end of the 1947 film which is missing here. And the new one tamps down the religious aspect of the previous one a lot– which for me was a weak point of the old one, but I do think there’d be something to say about religion being the ultimate spook show which is glossed over here.

    I thought it was odd and interesting that Cooper doesn’t talk until a good 10 minutes into the film, and I’m still trying to figure out why. Is it because when he does speak, everything he says is meant to be a lie or manipulation?

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels a disconnect from Del Toro’s films. The guy himself is cool, and I should love his movies, but I’m held at arm’s length. They’ve all got a great look and production design, and that love of the old creature features that I admire. But something just doesn’t fully click into place for me. I’ll keep watching ’em, though.

  22. I can see that I’m not alone in this, but I truly have no idea how del Toro went from a director whose every movie I eagerly anticipated for months to an Oscar-winning filmmaker whose work I can’t even be bothered to watch. I only actively dislike one of his movies but I seem to have lost all faith in the man’s abilities, despite still enjoying him as a personality. I don’t think my opinion on any director has ever changed so extensively.

    I know PACIFIC RIM was unremittingly terrible but was it SO terrible that I need to keep punishing him for it nearly a decade later? Can’t we move past this?

    Not if he keeps making phony baloney period pieces. Maybe I’ll forgive him someday but this probably won’t be the one. I kind of hate fake noir (it always seems like some Max Fischer Players shit to me) and bloated running times and movies that cast Toni Collette so I think I’ll just read the book. That sounds like the real deal. Apologies to those who loved it but this movie just looks like a costume party to me. I get tired just thinking about all the meetings they had about hats.

  23. I thought this was…..fine. I mean, it is basically a 150 minute episode of the Twilight Zone, right? But it is a gorgeous looking film, to be sure.

  24. @burningambulance, EVERY movie made these days looks fake. CGI is good enough now that its being used so much that any given scene is drowning in pixels, even if it’s just a couple of characters talking in a room. And even if a scene is actually “real,” they have to alter it to make it look like the “fake” scenes, for consistency’s sake. I don’t know how we stumbled into this dead end, but modern movies all look like Sin City now. We should go back to using film.

    Anyway, I thought Nightmare Alley was pretty good. Bradley Cooper was doing solid work here, starting as a psycho, then a mute, then a conman, man-on-the-run, and finally, broken-down geek-in-training. That’s a lot of ground to traverse.

  25. Wait, you say that CGI is good enough to be used anywhere, then you say it looks fake? What is it?!

  26. I know what he means. CGI is good enough that you can’t pick out anything specific that looks fake, but the overall digital-ness of the entire visual presentation makes everything feel synthetic.

  27. Counterpoint: People are so indoctrinated by the “waaah, CGI bad” meme thinking, that they just suspect that any nice looking frame in a movie is automatically computer enhanced. because what other explanaitaion could there be. That camera technology is in 2022 so advanced that it can catch every light beam in great detail? Nah, Guillermo del Toro, who actually let the whole mansion in CRIMSON PEAK be built for real, must have shot a movie about an old timey carnival in front of a green screen. (That also reminds me of how people complained about “The bad looking CGI ghosts” in CP, although they were actually actors in make up, who were moved like rod puppets, to give them an otherworldly look.)

    Seriously, Netflix should make a game show called IS IT CGI?, where they just show stills from movies and people have to guess what was shot on location and what not. Spoiler: You will be surprised how many times what you see is what was caught by the camera without any extra additions.

  28. And sorry for being an asshat. Let’s just say I’m gonna have a difficult week or two, so I might be a bit grumpier than usual, but do my best not to be. I really shouldn’t start another discussion about CGI discrimination on here, therefore feel free to just leave it all uncommented.

    (That said, my point is still valid)

  29. For what it’s worth, this article about the cinematography mentions “massive sets” and all the steam they had to create, and shows a full sized carnival and all of the main interior sets with no green screens. But yes, it confirms that it’s shot digitally, not on film.


    Majestyk: I promise I’m not gonna complain about negativity, but this is my concern – you’re always talking yourself out of *trying* stuff. I’m sure you would hate plenty of the things you would try, if you did. But why not try?

  30. I’m sorry, Vern. It’s just… Hating things costs me. It costs me a lot. I spend days in that negative space. I’m not like you. I don’t have a generous spirit. I don’t bounce back. Everything leaves a scar on me, so I’ve learned to pick my battles carefully. I do not enjoy being a negative prick but I can’t seem to stop it so I try to avoid the things I suspect will draw out that side of me. In the process, I no doubt miss out on a lot of stuff that would surprise me but that’s the risk I’m willing to take. I wish I was the type of guy who could open his heart to whatever comes his way but that’s not how I’ve taught myself to survive. I’m not saying it’s right but that’s how I am.

    This is probably too heavy a response for this conversation, but I got some tragic family news just after leaving that first comment and I don’t really know why I’m even here talking about this but I think I’m just trying to distract myself so I can muster the resources to put on a happy face for my family.

    In conclusion go watch LUTHER THE GEEK again.

  31. OK, well, if it wasn’t a green screen fiesta, then I withdraw that specific objection. However they achieved the look of this movie, I did not like it.

    Majestyk, sorry to hear your news. Hope you come out the other side OK.

  32. No, thank you, that’s a good insight into what’s going on in these conversations, I’ll try to keep that in mind. Sorry to hear there’s a tragedy you’re dealing with. Take care of yourself and know that we’re here for you if you need us.

  33. I’m sure there will be SPOILERS sooner or later.

    Seeing this review was enough to give me the nudge to finally make this one happen — just finished it. I loved it. I loved all the things others said they loved, and I loved all the things some said they didn’t. It’s gorgeous, Coen brothers-calibre epic, pitch-perfect casting, production design and Depression-era atmosphere is perfect. I really escaped into this world.

    I love that it is a simple, self-contained story. No mystery box gotcha layers of fuckery: Just a guy who flies to close to the sun, and we are along for the ride, hoping against hope that he gets his shit figured out instead of doubling down and digging in deeper.

    The Big Coop kills this one. Go watch his BETWEEN TWO FERNS episode, please. There is a vulnerable person in there, and you see that in this film. When Strathairn (right?) tells him that good con men learned to read people out of necessity — as a survival and coping strategy, because they were picked on and vulnerable. Cooper hates his dad and hates the harshness of life, and he’s determined to be a survivor and a somebody. He’s determined to stand up and assert himself and take his shot. I feel the pathos, his woundings, his vulnerability. It’s truly heartbreaking. He tries so desperately to overcome his destiny and be different and better than his old man, but he gets greedy.

    To me, I see metaphors for addiction (and, of course, actual addiction), but it’s just bad choices piling up and the thrill of a good feeling and chasing hope and temptation and being on a run and just going all in and letting those winnings ride. Don’t do it, man. Rooney keeps telling him: Don’t do it, man. This is wrong. The man does not follow his better judgment. He just falls in deeper.

    See, I don’t think he’s just chasing money, contrary to what the amazing Cate Blanchette tries to tell him. We never see him as mister opulent big spender moneybags. I don’t see him as about the money per se. He’s never satisfied. He’s got that money in the mattresses mentality, afraid of ending up like his dad. Determined not to. Keep grinding, keep hustling. Go bigger. Don’t quit while you’re ahead, you’re on a run. You’re about to get even way more ahead.

    He’s about feeling alive and living by his wits and becoming somebody. It’s about proving to his old man and everyone else that he’s not nobody. It’s about the need to outsmart others, especially the fat cats who have no idea what it’s like to have to claw your way out and up and what it’s like to have been so close to ruin for so long. He’s hungry, he’s smart. He can beat the soft rich pricks.

    Man, when Cate B reads his mail in her office — twice! — that first time with the daddy issues. She’s got his number. He just wants to be somebody and prove that he is somebody and feel alive. He wants to be better than his dad was — to be the smart guy, not the mark. He’s got no role models and his judgment’s off.

    See, I think when he hears Dafoe tell him about how you break in and break down a new geek — I think it’s genuine compassion. Pity and disgust that someone could be so cruel and animalistic as to do that AND that someone could be such a sad sucker as to allow themselves to get done like that. Not Cooper. He’s not going to end up like his dad or these other poor sad suck fuckers. It’s fear and insecurity of being a nobody and of falling into the deepest pit of abject hopelessness, dependency, and pariah-hood. And in true noir fashion that has to come true. We know — or at least strongly suspect– that this is the destination, so, it’s about the journey. How he’s going to end up coming undone.

    Anyway, yeah, I loved this one for being a simple tale well-told, perfectly cast, beautifully realized, and fully self-contained. Bravo!

  34. “sad sack,” not “suck,” lol.

    Here’s the other thing I love about this film in particular as noir with a heightened and somewhat less-jaundiced-than-your-average-noir view of humanity. You can say that this is a film about grifters and hucksters, and you wouldn’t be wrong in as far as that goes, but you would be wrong in the sense that “a film about grifters” is misleadingly narrow and incomplete as a characterization.

    Grifting and huckstering is just the most salient example of what this film is more fundamentally about: how people deal with the resources, opportunities, privileges, baggage, debts, handicaps, and disadvantages that they inherit or that are visited upon them or that result from their own ignorant or risky choices. You have a bunch of people making risky, uncertain, passionate, morally charged choices on the margin. It’s not just that these choices are shot through with moral and ethical ambiguity, it’s that there’s deep uncertainty and peril, because the vicissitudes of personal health, occupational safety, the economy at large, and the decisions of moneyed high-rollers are all unpredictable.

    Bradley Cooper / Shaw embraces the challenge and the romanticism of trying to transcend his limits, make his way, and learn and try as much as he can. He’s a risk taker, not like his father. He wants to be an agent in the world and in his own life vs. being the victim and the visited upon. There’s a real ethical compass and a real compassion but also a sense of anxiety and urgency — a kind of Ricky Bobby “you’re either first or last,” but not in a douchey macho man way, but more in a survival instinct kind of way. Move or die. Use it or lose it. Unlike his dad, David Strathairn is someone he can actually learn from. Like his dad, Strathairn got soft and complacent, and it cost him his edge. Same with the geeks: they’ve gotten soft, lost their edge, and gotten taken. I don’t think Cooper ever quite embraces the Dafoe way — he sees the ambivalence and the hard-edged reality that Dafoe is not a good man and that he is guiltier than the geeks he preys upon. But then there is this other psychodrama, because the geek is more like his dad, and Dafoe is more like his uncle. So, even though it’s morally indefensible to do what Dafoe does, it’s also morally indefensible to be the patsy and pussy that his dad — or the geek — is. There’s a certain pity and disgust for the whole tawdry affair and the whole conflict or choice between being one or the other. This is what’s at stake when Cooper and Dafoe are having steak and eggs. You see all Cooper/Shaw’s mixed feelings and mixed motives. He doesn’t like or want to be Dafoe anymore than he likes or wants to be his uncle. And he has both pity and contempt for the geek, just like his dad. But pity is weakness. And above all, Cooper/Shaw does not want to be weak or meek. He wants and needs to be strong. To keep improving. To rise above and stay ahead of the ever-threatening undertone of ending up punked and owned and beaten like his dad or the geek. Better to be Dafoe than the geek, but Cooper tries to strike a middle way. As he takes his act to better places he is both the confidence man and the geek, but in a more refined, dignified way and where his targets are the 1%.

    But in the end, he flies too close. He lives, but perhaps his fate is worse than death in general and certainly from a “private hell” standpoint.

  35. Don’t know if it’s available on home media in this format yet, but I highly recommend the black and white version. I really, really liked this the first time I saw it in color. Thought it was a welcome return to form for Del Toro. But when I saw the black and white version and I looooved it. It feels damper, chillier. The traces of 21st century digital artifice is erased in black and white. It’s able to glue all the period costumes and sets together in a more natural way than the overly crisp color-corrected version.

  36. Vern – I was disappointed with the film, I think for one primary reason: I watched the original first. It’s a better movie, imho. You can watch it in its entirety on YouTube at


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    Thanks for another great review.

  37. Am not a Del Toro completist but jave really enjoyed CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. It is a bit uneven, but I found that it ranged from pretty good to great, and there is a perfect balance of story-telling variation and diversity within something that still feels curated and having a common aesthetic sensibility or at least “house style” (visuals are of a piece with NIGHTMARE ALLEY, I would say). There is a strong Lovecraftian cosmic horror vibe (some straight adaptations but then some that are more just in that key), but also some good body horror stuff, and I think I liked the BABADOOK ladies’ installment better than the actual BABADOOK. The Cosmatos episode was no MANDY, but it was quite good. Also, Crispin Glover being weird as shit. I have not yet watched the Rupert Grint one, but the others are all well worth watching.

    Also, while we’re talking anthologies, I watched the first four episodes of the Jodan Peele TWILIGHT ZONE, and although it didn’t all work, it was definitely a so-far-so-good thumbs up for me. I don’t know what the world may need, but I’m sure as hell that it starts with more horror-anthology series, sweet horror anthology series.

    Also, while we’re talking weird cosmic horror shit, I liked NIGHT HOUSE. Not a love, but a strong like.

  38. I too enjoyed CABINET OF CURIOSITIES a lot and would call it the strongest anthology show I’ve seen in ages. Even the episodes that suffer from “Oh, that’s all?” syndrome, like the one with Tim Blake Nelson or the Panos Cosmatos one, are entertaining enough that I didn’t feel like I just wasted an hour of my precious time.

    That said: The Rupert Grint episode is sadly the only one that I would call bad. It has its cool moments, but without having read the original short story it is based on, I doubt it was just another boring “Man obsessed with death because of childhood trauma tries to cross into the afterlife and come back” story like this adaptation here.

    My favourite was Vincenzo Natali’s GRAVEYARD RATS though, mostly because of its TALES FROM THE CRYPT vibe.

  39. Absolutely! I also loved the GRAVEYARD RATS one. In another minority opinion, I think PICKMAN’S CHOICE was my favorite, then MURMURING (the most “A24” of the lot, lol), then a two-way tie between RATS and Cosmatos’s Robocop’s psychadelic mystery tour. The Tim Blake-Nelson one was okay, but he was such a generic proto-Jan 6th-er that it felt a little anachronistic and on the nose (but connects well enough to the whole PICKMAN/COSMATOS “don’t open that box/door/book” vibe). I appreciated-more-than-enjoyed the one with the bank teller, but I did appreciate its foray into TALES FROM THE CRYPT-y arch macabre, along with a lot of the individual pieces. Her co-workers are all so gross and her husband so nice that it was a bit heavy for me, even if I appreciate what they are trying for with the whole fever dream of “gross women do locker room talk” + Dan Stevens as his EUROVISION character meets Billy Crystal’s “you look mahvalous!” guy. Original and horrifying though, so, I think that one may grow on me with time. After I watched a bunch of these, I went ahead and read some reviews and saw that the one I hadn’t watched yet was generally the least well-liked, so, I haven’t gotten back to it yet, but still plan to eventually.

  40. For me, THE OUTSIDE was also one of the weaker episodes, because of how its “OMG, look how wacky and weird this is!” style, with the constantly moving extreme wide angle cinematography and cast of mostly comedians, kinda robbed the message of its impact. But Micucci absolutely delivered a great perfomance and I do appreciate a female written and directed story about how society judges women by their looks, that leaves men completely off the hook (Unless you wanna count Dan Stevens’ part) and goes for the rarely used “Women are as guilty of being shitty too” angle.

    PICKMAN’S MODEL was good too, although it went exactly where you expected it to go, and casting Crispin Glover as charismatic madman is probably as on the nose, as casting Richard Brake as sadistic rapist (Sorry, couldn’t resist.), but actors get typecast because they are really great at a certain thing, so no complaints from me.

  41. Lol. For all I know Richard Brake is a lovely person (or not, I have no idea), and I do think he has a great distinctive face and vibe, he was just too good for a part that seemed to belong to a different movie.

    As for Glover, that accent plus his weird ageless quality was just such a weird choice. Has Glover ever actually played this particular type of weirdo? For what it is worth, I would absolutely be here for Richard Brake in this series, but I’d prefer he play against type. Like, make him the good guy or the victim or a more sympathetic bad guy. I just need something beyond greasy sadist.

  42. Oh, like most people who are famous for playing total pieces of shit, I heard lots of nice things about Brake from convention appearances. And I think Rob Zombie, who is by many people who worked with him described as one of the nicest men in the business, prefers to surround himself with cool people, so I guess Brake is alright.

  43. Actors don’t really get good because they do a certain thing well…it’s because they did that thing, people seem them in it, and so it’s easy to think that’s what they do…plus it helps if you look like Brake does.

  44. I’ve only watched the first three.
    GRAVEYARD RATS is a huge amount of fun, with two great monsters for the price of one.
    LOT 36 was a complete misfire for me – it looks beautiful and Nelson makes it pretty compelling viewing, but the script botches pretty much… everything. I thought it was terrible.
    Unlike THE AUTOPSY, which maybe suffers from a lack of mystery (why did they have to make it so clear it’s a The Hidden situation right from the start?) but aside from that it’s gorgeously put together, has ain excellent mastery of tone, and a really great wince-inducing (if a bit dumb) finale. Talk about a hard-earned victory. Prior’s gonna really hit it out of the park one of these days.

    Can’t wait to see the rest, it’s a killer roster of directors.

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