My first encounter with Guillermo del Toro was a tale of dark enchantment that was “Pan’s Labyrinth” – I saw that in the cinema, completely “cold”, without any pre-known ideas at all, everything that came at me off that silver screen was a soul punch. It was a nightmare of a borderline horror fairy tale, all the more awful because its roots were sunk in reality, into fascist Spain, and it pulled no punches in showing how reality and fantasy can be knitted together into a powerful whole that delivered a message many times more intense than either could on its own. “Pan’s Labyrinth” remained seared into my memory.
When “Shape of Water” followed, I again trooped off to the cinema with very little idea of what to expect (other than it was del Toro which by this stage was something that already qualified the movie as a must see. It prequalified as “dark enchantment”.). I remember literally sitting frozen in that cinema as the end credits rolled, leaning forward from the edge of my seat, trying to process. I wrote a blog post about that, right here on this site, talking about the story of the movie and the poetry or Rumi – and it made me go off and read more Rumi, and write more blog posts under the title “RUMInations” – and the post on “Shape of Water” became a mind-blowing one, garnering more views than almost anything other that I have posted here. It STILL gathers visitors, even now, years after the fact. “Shape of Water” was another reality/fantasy fairy tale mashup, and despite its obvious “monster” layers it was visceral, a deeply psychological experience that once again remains seared in my memory. The scene (look away, this is a spoiler on the the face of it if you haven’t seen this but WHY haven’t you seen this and anyway you need to see this to get the full gut punch so it doesn’t matter what you read here…) where the mute girl strains her voiceless throat to produce a strangled noise that might somehow turn into “I love you” – but then the moment unfolds into a classic Hollywood musical song and dance scene where she sings it, full throated, for one magical moment before reality locks her voice away once again and this time for good – my god, that took my BREATH away. I will never forget that feeling.
So, naturally, when I heard of a new movie – “Nightmare Alley” – I even contemplated going back to the movies in times of Covid for my del Toro dark enchantment fix. I didn’t, in the end – but just recently it popped up as a TV offering, and I immeditately taped it, and then, just the other day, settled down to watch.
I… ended up being just as glad that I hadn’t gone into the cinema to see it.
After Pan, and after Rumi, “Nightmare Alley”, although filled with atmosphere in inimitable del Toro style, simply failed to deliver on the enchantment factor, for me. There is just a touch of that reality/fantasy mashup, and mostly it’s a question of carnie cons and characters none of whom one feels particularly drawn to – and the only dark fairy tale “tell” is the subplot of the carnival “geek”, the one who bites heads of chickens for the audience’s delight, and how the carnie con man comes full circle concerning such geekdom – the final scene of the movie is supposed to be crack this open in the “magical” way but it doesn’t, for me, it’s just a scene where a point is made with a clue-by-four.
There’s nothing paritcularly wrong with the movie. It even garnered a good few Academy Award nominations. But… perhaps that is what the matter is with it. It’s a perfectly good movie, with some perfectly good performances by some perfectly good actors, but it’s… somehow… more COMMERCIAL than the other two movies that I loved. There is a sense that the dark enchantment has been stepped away from, that it has somehow been repudiated, that there is a a snigger somewhere that someone might have believed that it existed at all, and here’s a carnie ticket instead, and yeah, feel free to look behind the scenes to see how we fooled you.
I shouldn’t say I absolutely hated it. But “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Shape of Water” I will return to and watch again and again. “Nightmare Alley”… once was enough. I’m sorry, but I expected – I wanted – more. It just didn’t deliver.