Nightmare Alley Trailer Breakdown: Guillermo Del Toro Explores The Depravity Of Man

"Nightmare Alley" has already been adapted into a movie once in the 1940s, and now director Guillermo del Toro ("The Shape of Water," "Pacific Rim") is making a new version — and he's gathered one of the year's best casts to do it. The first trailer for del Toro's take has arrived, so let's take a closer look at this dark carnival noir.

It's The Carnival Life for Me

The film stars Bradley Cooper as Stan Carlisle, who starts out as a carnival huckster and eventually takes the knowledge he acquired there and makes his way into the big city to con rich people out of their money. That description might make him seem like some sort of hero, but if this movie is anything like the Tyrone Power movie from 1947, Carlisle is not a heroic figure. He's charming, yes, but there's a desperate and dirty quality to him, and if "Super Troopers" taught me anything, it's that desperation is a stinky cologne. This early section of the trailer seems to show Stan's earliest encounter with the carnival. The original film begins with Stan already an employee of the carnival, so it looks like del Toro is expanding the timeline a bit.

"Is He Man or Beast?"

Willem Dafoe plays the carnival's morally dubious owner, and his event frequently draws big crowds for its "geek show." Geeks were sideshow attractions at traveling carnivals, and they consisted of a guy biting the heads off of live animals (often chickens). Many workers refused to stay with a carnival that utilized a geek show; they were looked down upon because of their disgusting nature and for the fact that the geeks themselves were often alcoholics or drug addicts who had found themselves working as geeks just to get their next fix. In the original film, Stan is perversely fascinated by the geek, at one point explaining to another character, "I can't understand how anybody could get so low."

This banner for the geek show in del Toro's version is modeled after the one that appears in the first film, which looked like this:

An Eclectic Group

Rooney Mara plays Molly Cahill, a fellow carnival worker who becomes Stan's love interest and assistant as he sets off into the city in search of fame and fortune. In the original film, she discovers that there's a limit to how far she'll go with Stan in perpetrating his schemes. Del Toro has called Molly the "moral center" of this movie, so it sounds like she'll still have some serious objections to what Stan does in this version.

In the background, you'll notice longtime del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman rocking a spectacular coat. He plays Bruno, the carnival's strongman who is romantically interested in Molly. In the '47 film, she does not return his affection and doesn't appreciate Bruno's overprotective manner.

As you can see, Molly is more interested in Stan, dancing with him around a carousel.

"Human Freaks"

"Step right up and behold one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe!" Dafoe's character bellows in the trailer, introducing the geek show and standing in front of signs advertising a "cyclops boy" and "human freaks from all parts of the world." (Can you see why del Toro, a modern day master of cinematic creatures, monsters, and other misunderstood characters, would be interested in making a movie like this?)

"Is he man or beast?" Dafoe continues, as the trailer cuts to shots of Stan, teasing the exploration that's really on this movie's mind. "This creature has been examined by the foremost scientists and pronounced unequivocally a man. I am prepared to offer you folks one last chance to witness this supreme oddity."

Mademoiselle Zeena

Toni Collette plays Mademoiselle Zeena, "the miracle woman of the ages." She's a mentalist who works at the carnival, using parlor tricks to trick the yokels into thinking she can read their minds. Her carnival con works like this: Stan, working as her assistant, passes pieces of paper throughout the crowd and asks the audience to write down questions they want her to answer about their lives and sign their names on the paper. (Example: "What should I do with my wagon? J.E. Giles.) Zeena compiles the papers, puts them into a jar on stage, and then seemingly lights them on fire. But the jar has a secret hole in the bottom, and her drunken husband (played here by David Straithairn) simply rewrites the questions on a chalkboard, holding it up from under the stage so only Zeena can see. The audience thinks the questions have been burned, so when she's able to reproduce them and give them advice, they're in awe.

It looks like Clifton Collins Jr. ("Westworld") will be playing Zeena's assistant in del Toro's version.

The Great Stanton

When Stan and Molly eventually take their act on the road, he adopts the name "The Great Stanton" and performs in the big city. (In the original film, the city is Chicago.)

What's Up, Doc?

That's where Stan encounters Cate Blanchett plays Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychologist who records all of her sessions with her patients. When Stan discovers this, he realizes that having access to the information on her recordings would make him seem like he has supernatural mind-reading capabilities and keep the cash flowing straight into his pocket. But the film's official synopsis calls Ritter "even more dangerous" than Stan, so keep a close eye on her.

Destroy the Evidence

As the trailer picks up the pace, we see Stan and Molly hit someone with their car. One of the final shots reveals that the person is a man played by "Mindhunter" actor Holt McCallany. In the original film, he's a character who discovers Stan's supposed powers aren't as legitimate as Stan claims, and it appears that in this version, Stan and Molly are looking to get rid of him before he can spread the word and bring down everything Stan has worked for.

It's Electric

This scene happens relatively early in the film, when a sheriff played by Jim Beaver ("Deadwood") drops in to try to shut down the carnival and arrest Rooney Mara's Molly for indecent exposure. But Stan flips the switch on a machine that runs electricity through Molly, demonstrating why she needs to be wearing that seemingly scandalous costume in order to survive the electrical current. Here's what that scene looked like in the original:

A Bloody Escape

Here's a moment that is not featured in the original. Guillermo del Toro has said that he used William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel as the true basis for this new movie, and in that book, Stan essentially finds himself attacked from multiple angles as his ambitions get the better of him: one of his victims sends people to hunt him down and get revenge, while another double-crosses him and tries to have him committed. I'm guessing this scene of an injured Stan running through a hallway is him escaping from that posse that's trying to bring him to justice.

Stan Gets Lit

Here's another image that isn't in the original film: Stan chilling out in the middle of a burning room. I'm very curious to see if this ends up being a dream sequence or a real event in the story, because there's another shot earlier in the trailer that shows a man walking away from a burning house carrying a bag and a stack of something under his arm. Could this be the earliest point on the timeline for Stan, before he even heads to the carnival? Could he be using the carnival as a way to hide from whatever happened in his past that would lead to a fire like this?

"Nightmare Alley" hits theaters on December 17, 2021.