In discussing Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, the film noir period thriller Nightmare Alley, Jimmy Kimmel, having already seen the film, noted in admiration, “Even the ugliness in the movie is beautiful.” That may well be a description of the Oscar-winning director’s entire oeuvre, from the craggy majesty of Ron Perlman’s anti-heroic Hellboy, to The Shape Of Water’s slimy but improbably sexy Amphibian Man, to the baroque fairy tale horrors hiding throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, with del Toro describing his creative impetus as, “We gotta groom the ugliness.”
And there’s plenty of both beauty and ugliness in Nightmare Alley, where gorgeous people (including Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett) traffic in deceptively gilded seediness in the tale of an ambitious carnival huckster attempting to swindle the fabulously wealthy. Fans of both the 1947 Tyrone Power adaptation (meticulously restored by the good people at The Criterion Collection) or William Lindsay Gresham’s novel can anticipate just how that turns out.
Having characteristically steeped himself in both the 1940s carny squalor and opulent finery of Nightmare Alley’s disparate milieus, del Toro yet promised Kimmel that his film is entirely, 100 percent, no-kidding free from actual, otherworldly monsters this time around. You know, apart from, perhaps, the “cyclopean baby” in a jar that del Toro says bookends Cooper’s tale of grifting and risky romance.
Explaining the difference between the sideshow terminology delineating “gaffes” (mocked-up freak show attractions in jars) from “pickled punks” (the real article), del Toro whipped out his extravagantly penned idea notebook to show Kimmel that his own beloved, pickled, one-eyed baby (“He looks like me if I shaved my beard”) was one of the first images the director set upon when imagining Nightmare Alley’s world. “I just couldn’t resist the little guy,” noted del Toro happily, telling Kimmel that the slowly pickling prop proudly resides in the director’s home.
As for the rest of Nightmare Alley’s picturesque midway packed with tarot cards, (possibly fake) spiritualists, and other spooky trappings, del Toro extolled the singular skills of original author Gresham, along with the clearly lingering influence of his tarot-reading mom. “My mother is a bit of a witch,” del Toro told Kimmel, adding quickly, “in the nicest possible way.” Explaining that a locked-down tropical storm vacation with mom saw him learning the ways of the tarot, del Toro proclaimed skepticism of the fortune-telling practice—while admitting to Kimmel that he recently discarded his trusty deck of cards at an airport, after signs started turning ominous in the boarding area.
Quizzing Kimmel with some of the film’s more elaborate 1940s slang (“grouch bag,” “bumping gums”), the acclaimed Mexican filmmaker also explained how some serious sleight-of-hand went into making the film’s COVID-hampered production look as seamlessly extravagant as del Toro’s other films. Co-star Mara, explained del Toro, was able to have her baby during the enforced pandemic hiatus, meaning that, during a chase scene, she’s pregnant before going through a particular door, and already a mom once she emerges. “All of her baby weight came to me,” joked the jovially plus-sized director, touting his nice-guy attitude in accepting all his Hollywood-glamorous cast’s surplus.
Nightmare Alley premieres in theaters on December 17.