The darkness of Guillermo del Toro’s films brings to life a warning of morality. He is known primarily for his work with dark fantasy—a blend of horror and fantasy. But Nightmare Alleymarries his love of dark, rich stories with the isolating, existentialist visuals of film noir. 

In an interview with Turner Classic Movies, del Toro discusses the similarities between the genre conventions of both horror and film noir, saying the two genres work as parables. 

Nightmare Alley found much of its inspiration through American realist painters like Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper. The American realism movement was a rejection of romanticism in the 20th century, attempting to show and express the reality of regular people’s lives affected by the war-ridden times. Although colorful, the art depicted contemporary social realities that were hauntingly lonely as it focused on the individual. 

By utilizing the same color palette as the American realist painters, del Toro replicates the moody atmosphere of the rich works that were enchanted with the post-abundance era after the Great Depression and both World Wars to emphasize the sociology and psychology of his characters. 

Nightmare Alley's masterful bending and blending of horror and film noir isn't entirely something new. Many of the film noir movies that marked the death of the golden age of cinema were indistinguishable from horror. Both genres had very similar motifs and visual styles that created an uneasy atmosphere that warned audiences of behaviors displayed by the film's characters.

Nightmare_alley_and_the_freak_show'Nightmare Alley'Credit: 20th Century Studios

Horror and film noir masterfully played with western culture's fears by showing the terrors of everyday life drenched in chiaroscuro lighting while unique distinct film-noir camera angles captured sketchy characters in the act. 

But both genres are more than their tropes or genre conventions. They are about the choices made when human morality is tested. Film noir places the existential anti-hero in a position of choice, while horror emphasis the importance of the predicament as the world slowly caves in on the anti-hero. The genres are intertwined, pushing the themes of morality to their limit without suffocating the audience with a message. 

Nightmare Alley brings the visuals and story from the pitch-black depths of the world and dresses it in color, but being rich in hue doesn’t mean the film isn’t noir. What makes a film distinctly noir is the space within the frame and how the colors contrast with each other to create an eerie atmosphere that mimics paranoia. 

Nightmare_alley_isolation_through_art'Nightmare Alley'Credit: 20th Century Studios

The cautionary tale of the nature of good and evil in a human being presents moments of surface-level horror conventions that pull us deeper into the subtext of Nightmare Alley. The story uses its crisp and sexy dialogue from the femme fatale, Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), the eerie nature of men with power, and the manipulation of the characters’ and the audiences' self-perception to show who the true monsters are, shining a light on the faults of humanity. 

Nightmare Alley is more than an exercise in genre nostalgia and tropes. The grounded qualities of the film showcase how you can use genre conventions to elevate the story and emphasize the themes of your story. 

Do you have any other examples of noir horror? Let us know in the comments your thoughts on the genre blend in the comments below! 

Source: Turner Classic Movies