Category Archives: Thrillers

Movie Review: “Nightmare Alley”

As a general rule, a new Guillermo del Toro film will get me out to the theater as fast as possible, and “Nightmare Alley” was no exception. (I know I’m getting older when I find myself prioritizing slow-burning arthouse stuff over “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”) That said, I didn’t really know what to expect from del Toro’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”—a remake/expansion of a 1947 noir classic seemed like an unusual choice for the famously monster-oriented director.

Set in the late 1930s, “Nightmare Alley” picks up with drifter Stan Carlyle (Bradley Cooper), who strays into a traveling carnival and promptly finds himself hired on. There he meets Molly (Rooney Mara), a beautiful “Electric Girl” sideshow performer, and fortune-telling duo Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette). Over the years, Pete and Zeena have worked out an intricate mind-reading magic trick based on verbal cues, but have not performed it recently. They’re content enough, though, to pass it along to Stan—along with a cryptic warning against ever believing that he actually possesses psychic powers.

Once he masters the trick, Stan runs away with Molly to the big city, where their act soon becomes a major success in high society. Perpetually dogging Stan, though, is the temptation to branch out into “spook shows”—to falsely represent that his mental talents extend not merely to gimmickry, but to contact with the dead. After all, the rich and powerful will pay a high price for such feats. Soon, Stan and an ever-more-uncomfortable Molly find themselves dealing with important and dangerous men, playing for higher and higher stakes. Even more unsettling is the presence of enigmatic psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who seems willing to be complicit in Stan’s con—maybe too willing.

On the face of it, “Nightmare Alley” is a very different sort of film from del Toro’s other works. Despite its title and marketing campaign, this is not in any sense a horror movie: its violence is confined to a few shocking minutes during the climax, and its general ambiance is more eerie than menacing. Rather, “Nightmare Alley” is a bona fide neo-noir film, complete with deliberate pacing (the film clocks in at a solid 2 ½ hours), lush production design (the Art Deco sets of the film’s second half are stunners), and rough men in fedoras who call women “dames.” Also, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t note that the piano-driven score by Nathan Johnson was so good that I bought it on iTunes as soon as I left the theater.

And all told, the film is a great success. This is the type of movie that’s best watched with the lights down and cell phones put away, allowing it to wash over the viewer like a tide. But happily, there’s far more here than just gorgeous aesthetics: del Toro has turned in one of the most theme-dense, multilayered films I’ve seen all year, one that may even outdo his prior work in terms of symbolic richness.

The trope of the skeptic or debunker—who eventually comes face-to-face with the genuine supernatural—is a familiar motif in horror films. But in “Nightmare Alley,” that theme is subverted. The horror here isn’t that the paranormal manifests directly; the horror is that it doesn’t, that Stan courts moral and spiritual ruin by weaponizing others’ belief in it for his own selfish ends. Here there’s no mystical intervention or deus ex machina to paradoxically “bail him out” and cover up his history of lies; rather, Stan is thrust up against the biting awfulness of his own deceit, in all its ugliness.

Much more, of course, can be said about this theme. The overwhelming majority of del Toro’s films feature characters whose lives are shaped by “mythic narratives” in the truest sense, transcendent stories attesting to a metaphysical order beyond the material. His heroes and heroines prevail, even in the face of abjectly tragic circumstances, by living into their ontological purposes: Ofelia in “Pan’s Labyrinth” must undergo a series of ordeals in order to restore her true spiritual nature; Eliza in “The Shape of Water” finds the true meaning of her body through reunion with divinity; Hellboy, in his two del Toro films, wrestles with both his great personal powers and his seemingly tragic destiny. (Even the vampire Nyssa in “Blade II” finds peace in accepting her final annihilation by the sun’s glory.

And here the true meaning of Pete’s warning to Stan comes into view. To pretend to contact the dead—to transform the mentalist act from a “paranormal” gimmick to a necromantic triumph—is to tell a false story of the world, of its underlying spiritual structure, and so inevitably to become a character within that tale. While Stan always believes himself to be the master of his own fate, he inevitably becomes enslaved to the very myth he has promulgated—becoming, in short, a cautionary example. Or, to put it another way: Stan’s contempt for transcendence renders him a slave to immanence: in the very moment he congratulates himself on his self-won success, he hurtles toward a horrifying end. 

And over it all looms a common archetype in del Toro’s work—the prophet of woe. One could describe this maybe-not-quite-human figure, altogether uncontrollable by human pretensions, as a kind of divinity with a pagan, Dionysian edge. Here one finds the faun of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Angel of Death of “Hellboy II,” and Newton in “Pacific Rim”—all of whom speak with the cold voice of fate. Here, Dr. Lilith steps into that role—manifesting as goddess, judge, and Jungian anima alike.

Del Toro has often been described as a filmmaker who makes fairy tales for adults, and “Nightmare Alley” certainly fits the bill. It’s a tale of hubristic rise and fall set against the backdrop of eternal questions, culminating in a wickedly satisfying conclusion. Moviegoers in search of something a little more substantial than the usual holiday fare, this is the one for you. Or alternatively, if you’ve ever watched “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity,” or “The Big Sleep” and wished that they still made movies like that, “Nightmare Alley” is a must-see.

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Posted by on December 20, 2021 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

One of my few regrets from my years in law school is that, while living for three years in New Haven, I never made the trek out to Monroe, Connecticut to visit Ed and Lorraine Warren’s house. This controversial husband-and-wife duo—he a demonologist, she an alleged clairvoyant—investigated a wide variety of paranormal incidents during their long career together, leading to their cultivation of a museum of objects used in esoteric rites, including the notorious “Annabelle” doll.

Alas, in the absence of firsthand experience, I’ve been left to settle for second best—the increasingly sprawling cinematic universe of “The Conjuring,” loosely based on their cases. 2013 and 2016 marked the release of two of the finest—and interestingly enough, least grisly—horror films of the past decade. (“The Conjuring 2” is probably the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.) Follow-up flicks—the uneven “Annabelle” trilogy and the (weaker still) spinoffs “The Nun” and “The Curse of La Llorona—were lucrative, but suffered in quality.

With “The Devil Made Me Do It”, “La Llorona” director Michael Chaves takes the reins from series architect James Wan (known for “Saw” and “Insidious”). And while this third main-series installment packs a more substantial punch than some of the other entries in the “Conjuring”canon, I’m sad to report that it’s a bit of a mess.

“The Devil Made Me Do It” begins with the brutal exorcism of eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). To save David’s life, family friend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) agrees to let the demon take him instead. A few days later, with his sense-perceptions clouded by demonic influence, young Arne then goes on to kill his employer in a terrified frenzy. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are subsequently brought in to help him develop a “demonic possession defense” that will spare him the death penalty.

The first half hour of “The Devil Made Me Do It” is the “Conjuring” series at its best. Jump scares, monstrous claws dragged along building walls, escalating dread—it’s all here. The stage is set for a judicial showdown over the terms of engagement with the spiritual within late modernity.

But despite this setup, things don’t quite develop into the edgy courtroom thriller one would expect. Eventually, the Warrens discover that the Glatzel family was cursed by a powerful Satanist cult leader—a human adversary directing and manipulating demonic forces. The only way to stop her is to smash the altar that “grounds” her curse. And from there, things start to play out somewhat like Frank Peretti’s novel “This Present Darkness.” Demonic attacks start showing up in multiple places—at the Warrens’ house, in the deep forest, in the prison facility where Arne is kept, and so on. 

The third act, unfortunately, goes off the rails altogether. In seeking to deliver a big baroque climax that outdoes its predecessors, “The Devil Made Me Do It” swaps nail-chewing terror for monster-of-the-week spectacle. If you’ve seen a few episodes of “Supernatural,” you know what you’re in for.

I may be one of the last people who thinks this, but I’ve always thought that Christian-based supernatural horror films are strongest when they proceed with a distinct theological seriousness. In this particular context, a film ought to reflect a Catholic understanding of evil as not simply grotesquerie, but rather that which is oriented toward nonbeing, the utter disordering and degradation of the good. The first “Conjuring,” unfortunately, suffered from a certain ontological ambiguity surrounding the central antagonist: is it a witch’s ghost or a demon? The second was far better, pitting the Warrens against a single monstrous demon driven from its perch and seeking revenge (Matt. 12:43–45, anyone?) while traveling under the form of a skeletal nun. The demonic forces in this third installment, sadly, are pretty bog-standard monsters, and never come close to the sheer nastiness of those in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” or even “The Conjuring 2.” Untethered from a genuine attempt to understand why demons do what they do, what it means to be alienated from God and seeking to drag down others into that same abyss, an aesthetic of black candles and animal skulls is just cheesy pop-Satanism.

That’s not the only area, unfortunately, where this movie’s lack of serious spiritual interest proves to be a problem.

(Spoiler alert)

Early on, Ed and Lorraine swing by the house of a retired priest (John Noble) with an expertise in Satanic cults. As it so happens, this priest hasn’t destroyed all the occult objects he retrieved from evil rites; instead he’s locked them up in his basement, comparing it to “taking guns off the streets.” Now if you’re anything like me, this already sets your horror movie Spidey-sense tingling. But there’s a problem with this inference: Lorraine’s visions of the cult leader show a female antagonist.

There’s indeed a connection, though. Eventually we come to learn that the cultist is the priest’s illegitimate daughter, who had to be hidden from the Church and who developed an unhealthy interest in her father’s cult-busting work. This “revelation,” such as it is, is a profoundly unsatisfying one. We never learn why the daughter is targeting families for destruction, or what exactly she gains from cursing others. We know virtually nothing about her at all. As a result, the climax feels rather like learning in the last few pages of a mystery novel that the murderer was really “Cousin Bert,” who lives 100 miles away and whom nobody has ever heard of.

The logical answer to this screenwriting problem, I think, rests in a more daring narrative move: what if the cult-smashing priest was actually female from the start? What if, as a young woman, she experienced a call of God to the ministry, but was barred from ordination because of her sex—and, with no other perceived recourse, chose to live the life of a man instead? Might not such a figure, over time, grow resentful over being forced to live such an all-consuming lie? Might she not gravitate toward powers and principalities that would not demand such renunciation? On this view, Lorraine’s visions of a female cultist are impressions that pick up the priest’s own self-image beneath the layered deception—the ontological truth of her, so to speak.

Something like this, I think, better draws together the story’s narrative threads and foregrounds some genuinely provocative theological issues. Not to mention, it’s terrifying stuff: what could possibly be more frightening than a priest gone over to the “dark side”? Who could possibly be trusted in such a world?

(End spoilers)

Despite all these criticisms, I did enjoy this movie. The production values are top-notch, and for those who wish to look, there’s a great deal of interesting thematic material here if one’s willing to draw it to the surface. As a friend pointed out to me, there’s a sense in which this movie is built around the idea of marriage as a sacrament. If that argument holds, there’s a fascinating parallel here to the way in which “La Llorona” and “The Nun” hinge on Baptism and the Eucharist, respectively. For fans of the genre, it’s worth a watch on HBO Max, even if it doesn’t hit the heights of its predecessors.

There’s vastly more I could say about “The Devil Made Me Do It,” but I’ll just close with this. The night after I watched “The Conjuring 2,” I had nightmares of looming demon-nuns, waking up in a cold sweat and peering into spots of shadow in my room, all despite myself. The night after I watched “The Devil Made Me Do It,” I slept like a baby. 

“Conjuring” series fans, the choice is yours.

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Posted by on June 7, 2021 in Thrillers

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