Bela Lugosi As Henry Frankenstein?

When it comes to the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, the piece of trivia that everyone seems to know is that Bela Lugosi was the original choice to play the Monster.

As the story goes, Lugosi had just finished filming Dracula and Universal’s Carl Laemmle felt that it would only make sense for Lugosi to play the lead role in Universal’s second horror adaptation.  Not only would Lugosi be firmly established as Universal’s favorite monster but it would also reunite him with Edward van Sloan and Dwight Frye, both of whom played prominent supporting roles in Dracula.  However, the story continues, Lugosi turned down the part when he saw that the monster wouldn’t have any dialogue.

Well, the story is partially right.

The truth of the matter is that Frankenstein was one of several books to which Universal had the rights.  And when Lugosi learned that one of the studio’s directors, Robert Florey, was interested in directing a film based on Mary Shelley’s novel, he did meet with Florey to say that he was intrigued by the idea of playing the monster.  Lugosi even did a makeup test, one in which the proposed look of Lugosi’s monster reportedly owed much to 1920’s The Golem.  As a director, Florey was heavily influenced by German expressionism so it makes sense that he would look to The Golem for inspiration.

The Golem (1920, dir by Paul Wegner and Carl Boese)

Lugosi eventually lost interest in the role, not because of the lack of dialogue but because he felt that he wouldn’t be able to give a good performance while made up to look like the Monster.  His face would be barely visible and, as an actor, Lugosi naturally wanted to be recognized.  Lugosi had no objections to the script because the script itself hadn’t been written.  When Lugosi lost interest, so did Florey.

Instead, the project was taken on by director James Whale, who specifically asked for the project because he felt it would be a change-of-pace from the war movies that he had been directing.  Universal suggested John Carradine for the role of the Monster.  Whale, however, spotted Boris Karloff sitting in the studio’s cafeteria and specifically asked him to test for the role.  Karloff, with his imposing frame but gentle manner, more aligned with Whale’s version of the Monster as essentially being a child who is easily angered but ultimately more of a victim than a victimizer.

From the start, Whale also wanted Colin Clive to play Henry Frankenstein and Mae Clarke to play Elizabeth.  The studio, who wanted at least one star in the film, tried to convince him to go with Leslie Howard as Henry and Bette Davis (who, at that time, was just starting her career) as Elizabeth.  While the studio was willing to substitute the more glamorous Clarke for Davis, they were a bit less enthusiastic about Colin Clive as Henry.  If Whale was that opposed to Leslie Howard, the studio suggested, how about Bela Lugosi instead?

As we all know, Whale held firm and he eventually got Colin Clive.  Still, it’s interesting to imagine Frankenstein with Bela Lugosi, in the role of Henry, bringing Karloff’s Monster to life.  Personally, I think Whale made the right decision.  Lugosi would have been a bit too obviously sinister for the role of Henry Frankenstein whereas Colin Clive really nailed the characterization of Henry being an essentially good man who allowed his own obsessions to get the better of him.  Still, it’s interesting to imagine a Frankenstein that not only reunited the stars of Dracula but which included Boris Karloff as well!  Not only would it have been Lugosi and Karloff’s first film together but who knows?  Perhaps if a Lugosi-Karloff version of Frankenstein had been as successful as the Clive-Karloff version, Lugosi and Karloff would never have started their rivalry and Lugosi could have escaped the Dracula typecasting that hampered the rest of his career.

Though they didn’t share the screen in Frankenstein, Karloff and Lugosi would go on to appear in several films together.  Unfortunately, unlike the universally beloved Karloff, Lugosi’s career would be sabotaged by his own addictions and personal demons.  Lugosi would eventually get his chance to play Frankenstein’s Monster in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.  Unfortunately, that film is considered to be one of the weaker of the Universal horror films and Bela really didn’t get much of a chance to make a huge impression as the monster.  (He was right about the difficulty of being recognized under all that makeup.)

Bela Lugosi would die in 1956, at the age of 73.

Boris Karloff passed away 13 years later, at the age of 81.

Boris and Bela

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Embrace of the Vampire (dir by Anne Goursaud)

In this incredibly silly film from 1995, Martin Kemp plays The Vampire.  He doesn’t get a name but he does get a backstory.  Back when he was mortal, the Vampire pursued a secret and forbidden affair with a princess.  One day, after making love, the man who would became the Vampire was laying down next to a stream when he was approached by three naked women who proceeded to bite his neck and vampirize him.

Centuries later, the Vampire is sickly and approaching the end of his existence.  He only has three days to convince the reincarnation of his former lover to allow him to drink her blood so that he can continue to exist.  And apparently it won’t work unless she’s a virgin and unless she rejects all others and loves only him.  That sounds like a lot of rules to me and, to be honest, most of them seem to be kind of arbitrary.  Not only does The Vampire have to find the reincarnation of the Princess but he has to find her before she loses her virginity or otherwise, what?  She’ll cease to be the reincarnation?  Her love will somehow be devalued?  Her blood will no longer be worth drinking?  If this vampire has had to spend centuries only drinking blood from virgins who were in love with him, no wonder he looks so sickly.  I really think that maybe the other vampires were playing a practical joke when they explained the rules to him.  Hazing the new guy, it has consequences!

Anyway, the princess has been reincarnated as Charlotte (a young Alyssa Milano).  Fortunately, for the Vampire, Charlotte was raised in a convent and, even though she is now a college student, she’s still a virgin who blushes when she even hears the word sex.  Unfortunately, Charlotte has a boyfriend named Chris (Harrison Pruett) and she’s thinking about losing her virginity if she can convince herself that she loves Chris more than any other person that she will ever possibly meet.  So, the Vampire not only has to convince Charlotte to fall in love with him but he also has to make sure that she doesn’t have sex beforehand.  It’s going to be difficult because everyone on campus is determined to get Charlotte laid.  This has all the makings of Italian sex comedy but Embrace of the Vampire instead takes its plot very seriously.

The Vampire starts to appear in Charlotte’s dreams.  He gives her an ankh to replace the cross that Chris gave her.  Because the Ankh is a symbol of desire, just wearing it makes Charlotte more sexually aggressive and soon, she’s wearing short skirts, low-cut tops, and white stockings.  She’s also making out with Sarah (Charlotte Lewis), the photographer who lives in the dorm room next to hers.  (As played by Charlotte Lewis, Sarah is actually an interesting character and it’s a shame that the film pretty much just uses her for titillation.)  But since the Vampire’s whole thing is keeping Charlotte from losing her virginity, why would he give her something that would make her more open to sexual experiences?  Again, it’s hard not to think that the Vampire is just the victim of an elaborate practical joke.

As I said at the start of the review, Embrace of the Vampire is incredibly silly.  It’s also a film that seems to be a bit popular with viewers of a certain age.  I’m assuming that’s because of the frequent Alyssa Milano nudity and that one scene with Charlotte Lewis.  For the most part, Alyssa Milano gives a bland performance in Embrace of the Vampire.  It’s not so much that she’s bad as everything about her performance is on the surface.  One gets the feeling that there’s really not much going on with Charlotte’s inner life, both before and after she starts dreaming about The Vampire.  As The Vampire, Martin Kemp appears to be absolutely miserable.  He comes across as if he’d rather be anywhere than appearing in this movie.

That said, the film’s director got her start working with Francis Ford Coppola and she has a good eye for gothic scenery and atmosphere.  A scene where Charlotte imagines a frat party turning into a Hellish orgy is effectively done.  Jennifer Tilly has a small role as a vampire and she has said that Quentin Tarantino approached her at the Oscars to tell her that he enjoyed the movie.  It’s a silly movie (yes, third time I’ve used that specific term and that should tell you just how silly it is) but, for better or worse, it epitomizes an era.

Horror Scenes That I Love: Edward Van Sloan Introduces Frankenstein

For our first Scene that I love for this year’s Horrorthon, I’m sharing the opening of the 1931 classic, Frankenstein.  The scene below features neither Colin Clive or Boris Karloff.  Instead, Edward Van Sloan breaks the fourth wall and, in his humorously avuncular way, lets the audience know what’s in store for them.

Today, of course, we all know the story of Frankenstein and his monster.  However, imagine how audiences in 1931, many of whom probably knew nothing about the story they were about to watch, must have felt when Edward Van Sloan specifically took a minute to warn them that they were about to see something terrifying.  You have to remember that Van Sloan was talking to the first generation of regular filmgoers and he was introducing them to one of the first true horror films of the sound era.  Today, it’s easy to smile when Van Sloan says, “You can’t say we didn’t warn you.”  In 1931, I imagine it probably sounded more like a dare.  Van Sloan was asking, “Do you have the courage to stay in theater?”  It’s kind of charming, isn’t it?

Edward Van Sloan was a bit of fixture when it came to the early Universal horror films.  Not only did he play Henry Frankenstein’s mentor but, in the same year, he played Prof. Van Helsing in Dracula.  He also had a key supporting role in The Mummy.  When it came to explaining the supernatural and the undead, no one else did it with quite the class of Edward Van Sloan.

International Horror Film Review: Bloody Moon (dir by Jesus Franco)

A 1981 West German/Spanish co-production, Bloody Moon open with a disfigured man named Miguel (Alexander Waechter) putting on a Mickey Mouse mask and sneaking into a party being held on the campus of a private school that is known as (deep breath) Europe’s International Youth-Club Boarding School of Languages.  It’s a school that is meant for the young, the rich, and the unburdened.  In short, it’s not a place for Miguel at all.

With his face safely hidden behind the smiling image of Disney’s favorite mouse, Miguel meets a young woman who is dancing by herself.  She mistakes him for her boyfriend and heads into a nearby bungalow with him.  They start to make love but — uh oh! — the mask falls off!  The woman screams at the sight of Miguel’s scarred face.  Miguel grabs a pair of scissors and stabs her to death while Mickey Mouse’s smiling face smiles on the floor.  (One can only imagine how Disney reacted to this film.)

A few years later, Miguel is being released from a mental hospital.  He’s released into the custody of his sister, Manuela (Nadja Gerganoff).  Miguel’s doctor (played by the film’s director, Jesus “Jess” Franco) says that Miguel should be fine as long as he’s not around anything that reminds him of the incident.  Manuela says that she’ll look after him and then promptly takes him back to the school where he committed the murder.  What part of not reminding him did she fail to understand?

Manuela does actually have an excuse for bringing Miguel to the school with her, though.  She and her aunt, Countess Maria (Maria Rubio), own the school.  Countess Maria is an angry, wheelchair-bound woman who is convinced that Manuela wants to kill her so that she can take over the school and it does seem that Manuela does have some hostility towards her aunt.  Of course, another reason for bringing Miguel back to the school to live with her is that he and Manuela have an incestuous relationship …. or, at least, they did.  Now that Manuela refuses to sleep him, Miguel is reduced to lurking around campus and staring at all the students while they sunbathe topless at the pool.  While Manuela stands naked in her room and stares at the moon (the bloody moon?), Miguel is hunched down in the shrubbery and peeping through windows.

Among the students is Angela (Olivia Pascal).  Angela is upset because she discovered a dead body but no one’s willing to believe her because she also enjoys reading mystery novels.  Angela knows that someone is committing murders on campus but is it Miguel or it is Professor Alvaro (Christoph Moosbrugger) or could it even be the enigmatic Bueno (Otto Retzer), a bald guy who seems to randomly pop up around campus?  Can Angela convince her remarkably stupid classmates that there’s a murderer on campus before it’s too late?

Bloody Moon was one of the many films directed by the Spanish auteur and former Orson Welles collaborator, Jesus Franco.  In a career that lasted over 60 years, Franco directed at least 173 feature films.  (It’s felt that he actually directed quite a bit more, usually under a pseudonym.  Franco, himself, claimed that he didn’t really remember how many films he had directed.)  As a director, Franco is remembered for his low budgets, his unapologetic embrace of the sordid, his rather casual attitude towards maintaining continuity from one scene to another, and for occasionally framing an interesting shot or two.  By his own admission, Bloody Moon was not a personal project for Franco.  It’s something that he did for the money, as a director-for-hire.  However, Bloody Moon is unmistakably a Franco film.  The budget is low.  The subject matter is often so sordid that it borders on parody.  As far as continuity goes, Angela goes from wearing a nightshirt when she discovers a dead body inside her bungalow to wearing a colorful sweater when she runs outside in a panic.  (I guess she could have stopped to change clothes with a dead body on the bed and a killer lurking somewhere in the bungalow but I doubt it.  When there’s a dead body on your bed, modesty should be the least of your concerns.)  And yet, as silly as it all is, there are moments when Bloody Moon does achieve a certain dream-like intensity.  The mix of badly dubbed performers, sudden jump cuts, bloody violence, and the total lack of narrative logic makes Bloody Moon feel a bit like a filmed nightmare.  It works despite itself.

Bloody Moon is one of the films that was, for a while, banned in the UK due to its violence and bloodshed.  And indeed, there is a lot of blood and the violence is a bit more graphic than what one might expect to find in the American slasher films that Bloody Moon was obviously meant to capitalize upon.  This film is notable for just how cruel the killer is.  Not even Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees resorted to using a giant radial saw.  That said, this is one of those films that has a reputation for being bloodier than it actually is.  The majority of the film is taken up with scenes of people wandering around campus, either searching for their friends or stalking a potential victim.  Personally, I felt the nonstop searching scenes added to the film’s dreamlike feel but I imagine those who only watch films like this for the kills will find it all to be a bit slow.

Bloody Moon was clearly made to capitalize on the success of American slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th.  That said, Bloody Moon has more in common with the Italian giallo genre, right down to the whodunit nature of the plot, the ludicrously sleazy motives of the killer, and the total lack of intentional comic relief.  Like so many giallo films, Bloody Moon takes place in a world where everyone’s either a victim or a killer and no one’s particularly likable.  It’s not one of Franco’s personal films but there’s still enough of his signature style to appeal to his fans.  As with most of Franco’s film, it will be best appreciated by those who like a little ennui mixed with their horror.

8 Shots From 8 Horror Films: The 1930s

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

This October, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with my contribution to 4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films.  I’m going to be taking a little chronological tour of the history of horror cinema, moving from decade to decade.

Today, we take a look at the 1930s.

8 Shots From 8 Horror Films

Dracula (1931, starring Bela Lugosi as the Count, Dir by Tod Browning, DP: Karl Freund)

Frankenstein (1931, dir by James Whale, DP: Arthur Edeson)

White Zombie (1932, directed by Vincent Halperin, DP: Arthur Martinelli)

The Mummy (1932, directed by Karl Freund, DP: Charles Stumar)

The Invisible Man (1933, dir by James Whale, DP: Arthur Edeson)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, dir James Whale, DP: John J. Mescall)

Mark of the Vampire (1935, dir by Tod Browning, DP: James Wong Howe)

Son of Frankenstein (1939, directed by Rowland V. Lee, DP: George Robinson)

Horror Film Review: Await Further Instructions (dir by Johnny Kevorkian)

The 2018 film, Await Further Instructions, takes place in the United Kingdom during the Christmas season.  However, it tells a story that could take place anywhere and at any time.  That’s even more obvious today than when the film was first released.

A dysfunctional family has gathered for the holidays.  Nick (Sam Gittins) brings his girlfriend, Annji (Neerja Naik).  Nick’s sister, Kate (Holly Weston), is both pregnant and a racist.  She brings her husband, Scott (Kris Saddler).  Tony (Grant Masters) and Beth (Abigail Cruttendon) are the parents, trying to keep some sort of order as dinner is served.  Finally, Granddad (David Bradley) dislikes everyone as grandfathers are allowed to do.  Once someone reaches a certain age, bad behavior is casually dismissed as someone just having a bad day.

The family dinner is interrupted by reports of some sort of ill-defined disaster.  A dark substance appears to have surrounded the house, trapping them inside.  Bizarre messages start to appear on the television, telling the family to obey orders and to await further instructions.  Some members of the family dare to unplug the television, just for Tony quickly plug it back in.  Hypodermic needles are dropped through the chimney, along with a message that one of them is infected and that they have to take the vaccine if they’re going to survive.  Even after taking the shot leads to one member of the family vomiting to death, Tony continues to insist that everyone has to follow the instructions coming from the television.  The television accuses one of them being a sleeper agent.  The television demands a sacrifice.  The television warns of terrible consequences if its instructions are not followed.  Those who try to resist find themselves being attacked by the other members of the family.  “Worship me,” the television suggests at one point and much of the family is willing to do just that.

Await Further Instructions was made in 2018 but it’s a film that feels as if it was specifically made for the COVID era.  (I write this as someone who is voluntarily vaccinated and who is still more than happy to put on a mask if someone politely requests that I do so.)  While a good deal of the film’s horror does come from grotesque imagery and Cronenberg-style body horror, the reason why the film sticks with the viewer is because it perfectly captures the paranoid atmosphere that everyone has had to deal with over the past two years.  (Indeed, if this film had been made today, critics would probably say that the film was a bit too on the nose in its portrayal of people putting blind faith in instructions coming from unseen forces.)  Tony goes from being a slightly addled father to being a monster, precisely because that’s what he’s ordered to do and he doesn’t have the courage or the imagination to question why.  This is the story of a family that’s destroyed because they put more faith in authority than in their own common sense.  It’s a story about family that turns on itself because it’s ordered to do so.  It’s a story that feels very relevant today.  One need only read one of the thousands of self-pitying social media updates from people talking about how they’ve shut their families out of their lives to realize that many people, if they were in the same situation, would probably behave the same way that Tony behaves in this film.

By confining the action to one location, the film creates a visceral atmosphere of claustrophobia.  Even if the family could escape from the house, the viewer has to wonder if there’s anywhere left to go.  The film declines to make clear if the same horror is happening to the rest of the world or if it’s just concentrated on that one house.  Is everyone being told to await further instructions or is just that one family?  Await Further Instructions not only captures the horrors of blind conformity and overwhelming paranoia but also the horror of isolation and again, it’s hard not to feel that this 2018 film predicted the future.  For all the horrors of the COVID era, the isolation was the most psychologically damaging.  Families were destroyed.  Friendships were broken.  Faith in institutions was lost.  All while people were ordered to shut up and await further instructions.

Even more now than when it was first released, Await Further Instructions is a powerful and visceral horror film.

Live Tweet Alert: Watch Dark Was The Night with #ScarySocial

As some of our regular readers undoubtedly know, I am involved in a few weekly live tweets on twitter.  I host #FridayNightFlix every Friday, I co-host #ScarySocial on Saturday, and I am one of the five hosts of #MondayActionMovie!  Every week, we get together.  We watch a movie.  We tweet our way through it.

Tonight, for #ScarySocial, Tim Buntley will be hosting 2014’s Dark Was The Night!

The forest near a small town serve as the home of a fearsome creature.  Can Kevin Durand and Lukas Haas save their town from supernatural destruction!?  I don’t know.  I’ll find out tonight when I watch Dark Was The Night with #ScarySocial!

If you want to join us on Saturday night, just hop onto twitter, start the film at 9 pm et, and use the #ScarySocial hashtag!  The film is available on Prime and a few other streaming sites.  I’ll be there co-hosting and I imagine some other members of the TSL Crew will be there as well.  It’s a friendly group and welcoming of newcomers so don’t be shy.

Horror on the Lens: The Horror at 37,000 Feet (dir by David Lowell Rich)

Hi there and welcome to October! This is our favorite time of the year here at the Shattered Lens because October is our annual horrorthon! For the past several years (seriously, we’ve been doing this for a while), we have celebrated every October by reviewing and showing some of our favorite horror movies, shows, books, and music. That’s a tradition that I’m looking forward to helping to continue this year.

To start things off, we have the 1973 made-for-TV movie, The Horror at 37,000 Feet.  This film starts off like a typical disaster film, with a collection of familiar celebrities catching a flight from Heathrow Airport.    What they don’t know is that celebrity is not the only thing flying across the ocean!  There’s a sacrificial altar sitting in the baggage hold and soon, all sorts of strange things are happening!  Truly, it’s a horror at 37,000 feet!

This film is silly and perhaps even a little bit dumb but it’s also definitely a lot of fun.  To be honest, when you’ve got William Shatner playing an ex-priest who is wondering what happened to his faith, how can you go wrong?  Along with Shatner, keep an eye out for Chuck Conners, Buddy Ebsen, Roy Thinnes, Paul Winfield, Tammy Grimes, and France Nuyen.  Basically, every TV actor who needed a job in 1973 boarded The Horror at 37,000 Feet. 

Happy October and enjoy The Horror at 37,000 Feet!

Ten Things That I’m Looking Forward To In October

Yay!  It’s finally October again!  Are you excited because I know I am?  Seriously, it feels like it’s been a year since I last got to celebrate my favorite month!

Here are ten things that I’m looking forward to in October.

  1. Halloween and Horrothon! — You all had to know that this was going to be number one, right?  Halloween is my favorite time of year, both because of the cool weather and the fact that it’s the start of the holiday season!  Plus, this time of year that we do our annual Horrorthon here at TSL!  (I will also be contributing daily horror reviews to Horror Critic!) I spend all year looking forward to and preparing for this month.  Horrorthon can be an exhausting enterprise but it’s always worth it.
  2. Terrifier 2 — Art, the world’s most terrifying clown is back!  Seriously, killer clowns are a bit of a cliché but Art is one of the most frightening horror creations that I’ve ever seen.  Terrifier 2 is going to be 138 minutes long and, with the legacy of Michael Myers being ruined by the current David Gordon Green Halloween trilogy (seriously, don’t even get me started), now is the time for Art to step up and remind people what horror is all about.
  3. TAR — Todd Field’s first film since Little Children looks intriguing and has been getting rapturous reviews.  TAR is getting a limited release on October 3rd before opening wide on October 28th.  It may not be a horror film but I’m still looking forward to seeing the film that could very well make Cate Blanchett a three-time Oscar winner.
  4. Triangle of Sadness — For that matter, I’m also looking forward to Triangle of Sadness, this year’s winner of Palme d’Or.  The film opens on October 7th and it appears to feature Woody Harrelson in the role that he was born to play.
  5. The Banshees of Inisherin — An Irish film, reuniting Martin McDonagh, Colin Farrell, and Brendan Gleeson?  (Previously, all three worked together on the brilliant In Bruges.)  How could I possible resist?
  6. Dark Glasses — Dario Argento’s latest film is coming to Shudder!
  7. Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, the original Suspiria, Carnival of Souls, Robot Monster, Little Shop of Horrors, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, the original Halloween — It’s tradition!  These are films that I watch at least once every October and I’m looking forward to watching them this year as well.
  8. Mocking the critics — There are so many snobs out there when it comes to horror.  That’s why it’s always fun to spend October mocking them on twitter.  Forget those who look down on horror.  October is our time.
  9. All The Holiday SpecialsToy Story of Terror?  Yep.  It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown?  You know my sister and I will be watching it.  It’s not October without the holiday specials.
  10. Setting A Record — Last year, at TSL, we posted 487 times over the course of October.  Think we can break 500 this year?  We’re off to a good start!

Happy October everyone!  I look forward to sharing this wonderful time of year with all of you!  What are you looking forward to?

Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Nightmare Alley (dir by Guillermo del Toro)

In March, CODA won the Oscar for Best Picture.

By May, I think most people had forgotten about it.

I point this out not to be snarky about CODA (which, for the most part, I found to be a well-made and sweet-natured movie) but to just point out that occasionally, the Oscar for Best Picture Of The Year does not go to the nominee that’s necessarily going to be remembered and watched by future generations.  CODA’s victory is not a travesty, regardless of what some members of Film Twitter insisted.  This isn’t like when Green Book won.  It’s just that CODA seems to be destined to be remembered in much the same way that we remember Argo and Spotlight, i.e. a well-made and well-acted film that gets the job done but don’t necessarily stick around in your mind for long after you watch it.

In fact, looking back at all of the 2021 Best Picture nominees, the one that has really stuck with me is Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley tells the story of Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter who, in 1939, gets a job with a carnival.  Stan is running from his past.  He’s haunted by visions and dreams of a dying old man and a burning farm house.  When we first meet him, he avoids alcohol which is perhaps a good thing as getting drunk at the carnival just makes someone easier to exploit and, ultimately, the carnival is all about exploitation.  The carnival’s owner, Clem (Willem DaFoe), specializes in tricking alcoholics into becoming opium-addicted “geeks,” who bite the heads off of chickens for gawking country audiences.

It’s not a glamorous life but it’s one that allows Stan to hide from his past.  He comes under the tutelage of Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband, Pete (David Straithairn).  They teach him how to give “cold readings,” and Stan proves to be an eager student.  Pete tells Stan to never pretend to be able to speak to the dead and, from the minute that Pete says it, we can tell that Stan is already thinking about how much money he could make by doing just that.  Stan also appears to fall in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), a performer whose act involves a fake electric chair.  When Stan eventually abandons the carnival, Molly goes with him.  When Stan finds success as a fake medium, Molly is his assistant.

Stan becomes quite a success in Buffalo, trading in his shabby clothes and his unshaven appearance for a tuxedo and suave mustache.  With success comes arrogance and Stan soon ignore what Pete told him about pretending to be able to speak to the dead.  When Stan meets a psychologist named Dr. Lillian Rith (Cate Blanchett), he gets involved in a plot to con a judge who is still mourning for his deceased son.  It also leads to Stan meeting a corrupt and murderous businessman (Richard Jenkins).  Ignoring Pete’s lesson sets off a chain of events that leads Stan right back to where he started.

There’s something wonderfully subversive about taking Bradley Cooper, a legitimate movie star who is probably one of the most personable and likable actors working today, and casting him as such a sleazy character.  This isn’t a case, as in American Hustle or even The Hangover movies, where Cooper is playing a goof who gets in over his head.  Instead, Stan is someone who uses his eager manner and his natural charm to cover up the fact that he’s hollow on the inside.  Watching the film, you’re never quite sure as to whether or not Stan truly cares about any of the people who come into his life.  Does he love Molly or is he just using her?  Does he care about his friends from the carnival or is he just manipulating them into acting as a shield to keep out his former life?  When he goes against Pete’s lessons about pretending to speak to the dead, is he motivated by greed or arrogance?  Or does he truly want to believe that he’s somehow become the all-powerful psychic that he pretends to be?  Stan becomes a success because he knows how to con everyone but eventually, he meets someone who is even emptier than he is.  Ultimately, Stan cons himself.  He tricks himself into believing that he’s more clever than he actually is and he ends up facing the fate that he secretly always knew was waiting for him.  Cooper gives an outstanding performance as Stan.  Both he and del Toro cleverly play with what audiences expect when they see Bradley Cooper onscreen.  In the end, the film suggests that not even charm can ward off karma.

Nightmare Alley is work of what Lucio Fulci called “pure cinema,” one in which the imagery and the emotions generated by that imagery is even more important than the story itself.  The sets, whether it’s the carnival or Dr. Ritter’s office or the Buffalo ballroom where Stan cons the wealthy, are large and ornate.  The cinematography is gorgeous.  The supporting performances are arch and witty.  Cate Blanchett’s and Rooney Mara’s costumes are to die for.  Nearly every shot feels as if it could have been lifted from a particularly vivid dream.  Guillermo del Toro’s love of cinema is evident in every frame of Nightmare Alley.  It’s a film that celebrates the grandeur and the power of imagination and also warns about the destructive power of hubris.  Despite the fact that del Toro has gone on the record saying that there’s nothing supernatural about Nightmare Alley, it’s still a wonderful film for the Halloween season.  The costumes are beautiful and the final third of the movie plays like an homage to the classic German expressionistic horror films, with Blanchett playing her role as a mix of Dr. Caligari and a classic noir feeme fatale.  Nightmare Alley is a big, flamboyant, and unforgettable work of pure cinema and, looking back, it’s my favorite film of 2021.

It’s a film that stays with you.