Despite being half an hour longer than the first film to adapt William Lindsay Gresham’s novel back in 1947, Guillermo del Toro’s revamp doesn’t seem to add a whole lot to the story than when it was initially told cinematically that at least isn’t obvious. Besides the matter of finally getting to see “The Geek” in action — a poor, interchangeable, drunk soul made to seem like some otherworldly beast that bites through the neck of live chickens and what other horrors have you — or diving into the topic of religion a little more heavily which does seem full of potential from the inclusion of the main character’s history with his devout yet abusive father that, although, never seems to reach the thematic heights it could’ve, there is however a much more noticeable change in its dramatic tension.
You see, the 2021 Nightmare Alley isn’t really that different next to its predecessor; in fact, it basically hits all the same narrative beats and does it though with a rather collected pace by means of del Toro’s usual silky visual direction and colored tint to switch appearances up. Nonetheless, it is essentially the same story but hailed with greater consequences during its final act. Yet, before the story gets all kamikaze there, it develops the relationships between its characters, but surprisingly, not nearly as well as Edmund Goulding’s version. In a movie this much longer than what came before it, one would have to wonder why the bonds between its devious personalities feel much more rushed than they did in a shorter adaptation. Is it because of the immersive avant-garde look it wants to focus on or the neat lore del Toro seeks to stretch out, pushing audiences further into the setting than in the original? Whatever it may be, it doesn’t seem worth it, at least to me, if it’s in sacrifice of the crucial escalations that can be blossomed between two characters. With that, those consequential dramatic details that del Toro rewrites in, which tragically affects these individuals, therefore don’t end up hitting as hard emotionally to the audience than they did previously with characters whose partnerships were thickened, even if said consequences are objectively more tragic than they were in Goulding’s adaptation.
Kind of like how I claimed that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake was ever so slightly better than its source material, I’d actually claim that Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Nightmare Alley is rather ever so slightly worse than the one that started it all. I think the easiest specific example I can give for my reason being is the use of fortune cards in both movies. In Goulding’s, we see Zeena (who is almost non-existent in del Toro’s adaptation) thoroughly explaining the meaning of each card to our main character Stanton, which subsequently foreshadows effectively the toxicity of what their relationship will become like in the future. Throughout the rest of the film, the cards continue to make appearances, metaphorically punishing Stanton’s ill-advised judgment more and more. In this remake, the existence of the fortune cards are used in only one scene, spoken about like an exposition dart and never to be seen again along with Zeena. del Toro’s adaptation may be brimmed of reemerging and new gizmos such as lie detectors or pickled punks to amp up the culture of America’s World War II years, but this material universe doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of enriching the living pawns participating in the story as well as Goulding’s did.
“Nightmare Alley” will be playing in theaters December 17th.