7 Guillermo Del Toro Trademarks In The Movie

Guillermo del Toro’s latest widely acclaimed masterpiece, Nightmare Alley, has been called a departure for the director. The plot has no supernatural elements and the dark tale of Stanton Carlisle is framed as a classical noir with high-contrast lighting and a grim antihero.

RELATED: 5 Ways Nightmare Alley Is Guillermo Del Toro’s Best Movie (& 5 Alternatives)

But it’s still a classic del Toro movie. The most appropriate genre category would be “horror noir.” With creepy imagery, Ron Perlman, and a sympathetic portrayal of a monster, Nightmare Alley adheres to many of the stylistic trademarks that have defined del Toro’s filmmaking from the beginning.

7 Unsettling Imagery

Clem talking to Stan in Nightmare Alley.

There are no supernatural elements in Nightmare Alley – just carnies pretending to have supernatural powers – but it still has plenty of del Toro’s signature disturbing imagery. The movie is more of a noir than del Toro’s standard horror films, but its production design is just as haunting.

The movie opens with a corpse being burnt. Molly covers herself in fake blood to portray one of Ezra’s many victims. Willem Dafoe’s carny ringleader keeps a pickled three-eyed fetus named Enoch in a jar. There are as many unnerving images in Nightmare Alley as any of del Toro’s more traditional horror movies.

6 Calling Back To Bygone Genres

Cate Blanchett in Nightmare Alley

Del Toro tells quintessentially human stories, but he frames them in familiar genres. Instead of following Hollywood’s genre trends, del Toro handpicks his favorite bygone genres from the past and modernizes them in moving, disturbing, deeply cinematic ways.

RELATED: The 10 Best Quotes From Nightmare Alley

Pan’s Labyrinth calls back to fairy tales; Crimson Peak calls back to the haunted house stories of gothic horror; Pacific Rim calls back to monster-infested Japanese kaiju movies. And Nightmare Alley is a classic noir with high-contrast lighting, a femme fatale, and an antihero brought down by his own depraved decisions.


5 Carefully Considered Color Palette

Molly comforting Stan in Nightmare Alley.

Throughout his career, del Toro has chosen the colors in his cinematic compositions very carefully. He chooses each movie’s palette very deliberately, from the ambers of Hellboy to the blues and greens and Pan’s Labyrinth to the greens and yellows of The Shape of Water. In Blade II, warm yellows and cold blues are used to represent the dichotomy of day and night.

Del Toro shot Nightmare Alley in color, but he lit it like a black-and-white movie (it was even re-released in black-and-white under the title Nightmare Alley: A Vision in Darkness and Light). This lighting brought out dark, gloomy colors to reflect Stan’s dark, gloomy worldview.

4 Ron Perlman

Ron Perlman is del Toro’s lucky charm. The two have been working together since del Toro’s low-budget debut feature, Cronos. In the years since, Perlman has played the titular demonic orphan in the Hellboy movies and appeared in supporting roles in Blade II, Pacific Rim, and of course, Nightmare Alley. In Nightmare Alley, Perlman plays one of his toughest, most brutal del Toro characters to date.

Bruno is the strongman at the carnival who swore to Molly’s father that he’d keep her safe. True to Perlman’s gruff on-screen persona, Bruno is just as aggressive off-stage (especially when he notices Stan taking an interest in Molly).

3 Visual Symbols

All of del Toro’s movies are riddled with visual symbolism. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the eponymous labyrinth is a symbol of life and virtue, filled with baffling, complicated decisions.

In Nightmare Alley, circles are the primary recurring motifs. Circles can be seen all throughout the movie: the stage that Stan performs on, his dressing room, the tunnel in the funhouse, the list goes on. In a sense, the whole story is a circle: it begins with Stan drifting into a carnival and witnessing a geek show and ends with a broken, debauched Stan becoming the star attraction of one.

2 Bittersweet Ending

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

Stan’s moral downfall in Nightmare Alley leads to the inevitable tragic ending in which a carny boss recruits him for a “temporary” position in the geek show. In the final close-up shot, he breaks down and tells the carny boss, “Mister, I was born for it.” This is a classic example of del Toro’s signature bittersweet endings.

RELATED: 10 Best Performances In Nightmare Alley

Some of his movies end on a decidedly hopeful note, like Pacific Rim or The Shape of Water, but most of them end more ambiguously. At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia is shot by Captain Vidal, but gets resurrected as a princess in the fantasy underworld. At the end of Crimson Peak, Edith and Alan are rescued, but Lucille is doomed to spend eternity trapped in the mansion, playing piano as the ghost of Allerdale Hall.

1 The Sympathetic Monster

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

In a recent interview on WTF with Marc Maron, del Toro said that the two stories that influenced him the most were Frankenstein and Pinocchio. These two stories are linked by their sympathetic portrayal of a monster as the quintessential outsider. The sympathetic monster is the defining hallmark of del Toro’s filmmaking.

Hellboy is an orphaned demon seeking acceptance, Blade is a half-human half-vampire who wants to save humanity from vampires, and The Shape of Water’s starry-eyed Amazonian fish-man isn’t a terrifying boogeyman; he’s a hopeless romantic. Nightmare Alley’s Stan Carlisle, the con man who gets conned, is a classic sympathetic monster.

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