In some ways, this Halloween marks the end of an era. As I already mentioned, some things are going on that I can’t talk about just yet, but they’re leading to changes that won’t impact you, dear reader, too much, but will have a big impact on me. So, this Halloween has been unusual, in that I haven’t celebrated in some of the ways that I have in the past, even while other traditions have held firm.

It’s a stretch to say that it wouldn’t be Halloween without a new book with my name on it coming out, but that’s closer to true than not, over the last decade. This time around, as it happens, there is a new Orrin Grey book out. How to See Ghosts & Other Figments officially launches today. Electronic copies are available now, and print copies should be shipping directly. But that isn’t all. Elijah LaFollette of Magnetic Magic Rentals and I teamed up to bring you a special Halloween treat – a new story by yours truly, illustrated and designed by him.

“Familiar” is a very short, never-before-seen tale that should be suitable for the spooky season, laid out and presented immaculately by Eli only at Nightclub Zine. Hopefully that will help tide folks over until How to See Ghosts shows up on your doorstep in the middle of the night. Or at least give you something to read this evening between trick-or-treaters.

In spite of distractions, I’ve had a good and festive Halloween month. I watched something like 40 movies this month, if you count each installment of GDT’s Cabinet of Curiosities as a movie. Of those, the vast majority were first-time-watches for me, and many took place on or around Halloween. Some highlights include hosting Ghostwatch at the Stray Cat Film Center as part of the Horror Pod Class, They See You (2022), Werewolf by Night (2022), hosting House on Haunted Hill (1999), Nerdoween (of course), an Analog Sunday double-feature, and seeing Flying Phantom Ship for the first time thanks to the Blu-ray from Discotek. For those who aren’t familiar, Flying Phantom Ship is a 1969 anime that Hayao Miyazaki worked on, and it has to be seen to be believed.

As I type this, the afternoon of Halloween is wearing on toward evening, that lazy, golden time so well captured in John Carpenter’s classic film. I don’t have a lot planned to close out the day, but it’s been a good month. I hope you have a spooky Halloween night and lots of spooky days and nights to come…

I feel like I probably don’t need to explain why I was excited about Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (it’s always weird to me that his name is part of the title). Del Toro is one of my favorite contemporary directors and, more to the point, one whose sensibilities very often line up with my own. I love ambitious anthology horror series. This was a big deal for me.

And like any horror anthology series, it was hit and miss. I’d say the eight episodes that dropped on Netflix across four days were about 50/50 for me, but the good half were quite good, and even the ones I didn’t like as much were generally interesting. Of the eight episodes, I was most excited about “Graveyard Rats” going in, just because I love the story and think it would translate really well to film in the short form. And maybe it would, done another way, but this wasn’t it… at least for me. (I’m told there’s a black-and-white version available, and I’m very curious to check that out.)

A lot of other people seem to have loved it, so maybe my high hopes contributed to my disappointment. It’s certainly got a lot of critters in it, anyway. And that’s part of the thing with Cabinet of Curiosities; with the exception of Jennifer Kent’s “The Murmuring,” every episode has at least one or two monsters of some sort. And they’re usually quite good. “The Viewing” is another one I didn’t care for (not a Panos Cosmatos fan), but the monster in it was great.

So, which ones did I like? Well, I liked the first episode, “Lot 36,” and thought it started the series off on a strong footing, even if its lore was a little muddled and its monster relied perhaps too much on CGI. And I loved “Pickman’s Model” (that ghoul!), even though it doesn’t seem like most other folks dug it as much as me. Chalk that up to me liking the story, I guess, and also thinking it adapts well. But also, I mean, there are a lot of monsters and grotesques and such in this take on “Pickman’s Model,” and for striking imagery, it wins the show hands down, IMO. And I could listen to Crispin Glover’s Boston-ish accent all day long.

This is also reflective of something about this show, as a whole. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Masters of Horror. For some obvious reasons: both were pure anthology shows with each segment roughly an hour long and helmed by a different, generally well-established horror director. But there’s more to it than that. Like Masters of Horror, Cabinet of Curiosities has a certain amount of shared aesthetic from one episode to the next, even as the stories (and the directors) pull them in different directions.

In Cabinet of Curiosities you can lay that at least partly at the feet of showrunner Del Toro, most likely, but it also highlights some of the stars of the show, which are the people working behind the scenes. Guy Davis was a concept artist for pretty much the whole series, as I understand it, while Kevin McTurk puppeteered many of the monsters. And those are just two of the ones whose work I was already familiar with. For “Pickman’s Model,” for instance, you need examples of Pickman’s paintings, and in this case many of those were provided by Vincent Proce.

Besides the Masters of Horror of it all, there are some interesting decisions made in Cabinet of Curiosities. Of course, I am thrilled that GDT decided to go full Rod Serling and host the series himself. There’s also the fact that literally every episode is a period piece. Not all of them are the turn-of-the-century Victoriana of “Graveyard Rats” or “Pickman’s Model.” The first episode is set Stateside during the Gulf War. Panos Cosmatos’ segment is set in the ’70s. “The Murmuring” in the ’50s. And so on. But not one is set in the present, with the weird, indefinite period of Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Outside” coming closest.

There are probably lots of reasons for this – I’ve already seen at least one person online trot out the “no cellphones” cliche – but what I find interesting about it is that it taps (perhaps accidentally) into the antiquarian bent that informs so many classic ghost stories but also the cabinets of curiosities for which the show is named. These episodes, then, become artifacts from another time; capturing, in at least some cases, perhaps an older style of horror.

I haven’t yet mentioned “The Autopsy,” which was, for a lot of viewers, their favorite episode. It was my second-favorite. But if I’m being entirely honest, the first half of “The Autopsy” is my favorite episode of the entire series. It’s only in its second half that it falters. And that’s not really a condemnation of the episode itself. I’m just less interested in where the story goes than in the journey it takes to get there. That was true of the original short story by Michael Shea, as well, if memory serves. That journey, though? So good.

So, all in all, was Cabinet of Curiosities a triumph? Yes and no. It was not a perfect series. Few series are. It had episodes that landed with resounding thuds for me, but I almost always found them interesting, even then. But it was an absolute triumph in at least one sense. We need more well-funded anthology horror in the world, especially when it brings in the talents of some of the best in the business, both in front of and behind the scenes.

And if anyone wants my opinions, I’ve got some suggestions for stories to adapt for season two…

How to See Ghosts & Other Figments by Orrin Grey conjures forth more monsters, ghouls and ghosts than any midnight horror show in memory, but with real emotional depths to back them up. It’s like peering through the eyeholes of a cheap Halloween monster mask to see the tangible and very human sadness lurking just beneath.”

That’s the blurb, very kindly provided by the great Trevor Henderson, that decorates the back cover of my latest collection, which is now available to pre-order direct from the publisher, just in time for Halloween. Those who have been following along for a while now will note that this is the time of year when my collections generally come out, for reasons that I hope are obvious.

Along with the pre-order link, the cover art by Nick Gucker was just revealed. Again, those who have been paying attention already know that Nick did the covers for my last two books from Word Horde. He always makes my books look amazing, and this is no exception. I’ve joked before that Nick’s covers sell more copies of my books than I do, but it isn’t actually a joke.

This time around, we took inspiration from my favorite cover of Jean Ray’s classic weird novel Malpertuis. Which is great, by the way, and was recently re-issued, with new annotations and afterword by Scott Nicolay, from Wakefield Press, part of their ongoing mission of releasing translations of Jean Ray’s weird tales, which are all instant must-buys for me.

As for my own book, How to See Ghosts & Other Figments is perhaps my most eclectic collection to date, with all he usual author’s notes and afterwords and a new introduction by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who was one of the earliest editors to publish one of my stories.

The eighteen tales contained within span from some of my shortest to some of my longest, including the novelette “The Drunkard’s Dream.” They also include stories dating back to when I was in college, all the way up to stories that were first published earlier this year. Included among those are several pieces that border on juvenilia, repurposed and (I hope) revitalized in a way that makes them feel right at home alongside my more recent work.

The reasons I chose these stories are often ones that I get into in the author’s notes, but they all seemed to fit to me in ways that I hoped strengthened the entire book. There are themes that bind them all together, ones that I noticed (as is my usual wont) only as I was collecting the stories and writing the author’s notes, and I hope that the result is a whole as cohesive as any of my tighter previous collections. So far, the reactions seem to indicate that I managed it.

“When I think of the world of horror, I think of Grey’s world.”

That quote is from the first (as far as I know) official review of the book, which came from Shane Burley writing for Full Stop. The review also calls How to See Ghosts my “biggest step forward to date,” which is sort of what you’re always hoping each new book will be, while simultaneously dreading that you’ve maybe already plateaued. It is a really kind and extensive review, and I’m very glad to see folks already enjoying the book.

For those of you reading this but not yet enjoying the book, it should be in your hands very soon, assuming you’ve already pre-ordered. And if you haven’t, there’s still time! Pre-orders will get a signature sheet sticker that I recently signed while watching Halloween 5, but please don’t let that dissuade you. And if you prefer ebooks or the like, all those options will be available soon.

As I mentioned earlier, this October has been a bit hectic and unusual, for mostly good reasons, but of course a new book coming out is always big news, and it bears repeating. I don’t actually have copies of this one in my hands yet, either, but everything has been done on our end, and it should be shipping out forthwith. When copies arrive at my doorstep, be sure that you’ll be hearing more about it, and until then, stay spooky and, if you don’t hear from me before then (you probably will), happy Halloween!

“It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we’d be waiting in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in to sit by our fires of turf.”
Halloween 3 (1982)

However you feel about them, traditions are one of the ways we anchor ourselves – to the past, to our families and friends, to the world we know. From traditions that are part of cultural norms (presents at Christmas, fireworks at the 4th of July, the basic structures of weddings and funerals) to personal rituals that are bespoke for each individual, we all have them.

For me, one tradition that has settled in over the past decade is Nerdoween. It happens every October, hosted by the gents from the Nightmare Junkhead podcast. A themed triple-feature of horror movies, with the titles a mystery until the picture begins to roll. I went to the very first one, eight years ago now, and saw both Demons and Night of the Demons for the first time. (The third film on the docket was Demon Knight, but by then it was early morning and I had just watched Demon Knight the week before, as it happened.)

My adopted brother, Jay, came with me to that first Nerdoween, and he’s been with me at every one since. Over the course of the intervening years, I’ve seen twenty more movies courtesy of Nerdoween, skipping out on only one, for similar reasons to why I missed Demon Knight that first time around. Of those movies, 22 in total, counting that first year, nine were first-time watches. Which, given how many horror movies I’ve consumed, is a pretty good average. Every year but two I saw at least one movie for the first time.

This year’s theme was eating, and the movie I saw for the first time was Gnaw: The Food of the Gods 2 (1989), which was an experience. I did that over this previous weekend, when I also partook of a somewhat less long-lived but equally vital Halloween tradition: an Analog Sunday double feature, this time watching Dead Inn (1997) and Witches Sabbath (2005).

For those who have been following along for a while, you’ll know that Analog Sunday has become an important part of my life over the last few years. Through it, I’ve seen all sorts of movies I would probably otherwise never have experienced and, even more importantly, made some of my closest friends. Recently, it has moved into the Rewind bar in the basement of the Screenland Armour, which has been accompanied by some growing pains, but this double-feature was back upstairs and felt like a return to old times.

After watching five movies at the Screenland in two days, I drove back just two days later and hosted a screening of House on Haunted Hill (1999), a movie that has been a favorite since I first saw it in its Halloween theatrical run. Back then, I had never seen the original 1959 version, which has since become my literal favorite movie of all time.

The screening was fun. Haunted Hill ’99 makes for good seasonal programming. Spooky and campy and occasionally genuinely deranged. We had a good crowd, including one person who was seeing her first horror movie in a theatre. I think she picked a good one to start.

Eli, who hosts Analog Sunday, loaned me his tombstone props, and so I was able to decorate the place for some ambiance – harkening back to when I first saw the much worse haunted house movie of 1999, Jan de Bont’s frankly terrible remake of The Haunting, on opening night in a Wichita theatre whose lobby was decked out in fog machines and fake headstones.

That’s almost it for me this Halloween season, when it comes to appearances and theatrical endeavors. There’s just one left – another thing that has become a monthly staple, hosting a movie followed by a live podcast at the Stray Cat Film Center. It’s something that we’ve only been doing for a short while now, but it’s going strong. Last month, we did Uzumaki, which had our best turn-out to date. For Halloween, on October 27, we’re showing the movie that I’m probably most excited about of anything we’ve done yet: the 1992 faux newscast Ghostwatch.

It’s going to be a special night. And, in a lot of ways, the culmination of what has felt like a special Halloween season, despite some behind-the-scenes things that have kept me busier and less engaged than I might otherwise be. And the season isn’t over yet. There should be some news about my next collection, How to See Ghosts & Other Figments, coming very soon now…

Let me be clear, David Bruckner’s new Hellraiser does a lot of things well. The expansion of the Lament Configuration’s design, while unnecessary, is fun. The puzzle-box effects as the Cenobites arrive are great (there’s a sequence in a van that, as Trevor Henderson points out, is worth the price of admission) and the Cenobites themselves are well-designed and nicely performed throughout, even if they also all look like they’re already NECA action figures.

But, underneath all that, the film is so sterile and not even remotely horny, which are such weird things for a Hellraiser movie to be. As I said on social media, “I don’t know how to explain it but, despite having several sex scenes, this new Hellraiser emphatically does not fuck.” There is no passion underneath this machinery.

Ironically enough, David Bruckner’s last film, The Night House, which was, itself, rumored to be a repurposed Hellraiser spec script, is actually probably a better Hellraiser movie. Sure, it still doesn’t fuck either, but at least it kind of understands what fucking is. It’s not as grand as this film turned out to be, and if it had been released under the standalone title Hellraiser, as a reboot of the first film, as this one was, the fanbase would have been rabid. But it had a better handle on obsession, which is what you really have to get, even more than passion, to get Hellraiser.

Jonathan Raab is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I’ve mentioned this before. More than once. He combines fun and poppy, pulpy horror with counterculture messaging and genuinely disturbing imagery to conjure up spook house narratives that are equal parts confection and a genuine glimpse behind the veil. And The Haunting of Camp Winter Falcon may be his best work yet.

Though fun and often schlocky, Raab’s work is always smart, and always political. And that’s never been more true than in this tale of veterans of U.S. military service who are recruited into a psychotronic program that combines paranormal phenomena and high strange weirdness with psychotropic drugs and standard therapeutic tactics to do… well, something. Most of these folks don’t have a lot of choice in the matter, so who are they to ask too many questions?

The result is a sustained scream of blood-choked rage at our history of bloody wars, the military industrial complex, our treatment of veterans, and so much more – but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a fun ghost story (what Sam Raimi once called a “spook-a-blast”), filled with Technicolor imagery, gothic trappings, unexplainable lights in the night sky, extremely sketchy video tapes, terrible things lurking down in dark caves, goblins, aliens, and everything else you can imagine, pretty much.

That this novel that is extremely, specifically critical of American imperialism and exceptionalism also contains bloody chainsaw murders and explicit references to both Ghostbusters and Messiah of Evil, to name a few, is a pretty good summation of not only what you can expect from the smorgasbord that is The Haunting of Camp Winter Falcon, but of Raab’s work in general.

And you’ll never look at the night sky or a TV/VCR on a rolling stand the same way again…

October is an important month to me. I’ve talked a lot about this before. As a horror writer and person who predominantly consumes horror media, it’s a big time of year for me. Most years for the past decade or so, I’ve had a new book coming out in October, and this year will (hopefully) be no different, assuming supply chain issues don’t kick How to See Ghosts & Other Figments a little later into the season.

None of that is really why I love October so much, though. I love Halloween. It’s my favorite time of year. I love the grinning pumpkins, the autumn leaves, the fake cobwebs, and all that jazz. I love the fun of it, the carnival curtain covering the morbid reminder of our own mortality. I love autumn, the time of year that feels most right to me.

Every October, in various ways and for various reasons, I try to make the month feel special. For myself, for my friends and family, and for those who follow me online. This year, some things have come up. Nothing bad. In fact, some possibly quite good. But they’re going to change the dynamic of how I spend my time over the coming weeks.

Most years, I try to do a #31NightsofHalloween countdown on Twitter, running through what I’m watching, reading, and otherwise imbibing to celebrate the season. I’ll still be doing that, but there’s a real chance that I won’t be consuming quite as much as I otherwise would.

There are still some really exciting events happening in October. Nerdoween on the 15th, Analog Sunday on the 16th, and Tyler Unsell and I hosting Ghostwatch on the 27th at the Stray Cat Film Center. Not to mention my book which, hopefully, I’ll have more news about soon. And I’ll probably fit more other stuff in around that than even I am expecting. But if October is a little quiet this year, it’s not for any bad reason, and not for lack of enthusiasm.

The spirit, as they say, is willing.

In the meantime, I’ve seen a lot of folks asking for recommendations for movies to watch during the spooky season, and over on Twitter I’ve compiled a thread (two of them, actually) of some of the best ones I’ve ever seen that most folks never talk about. These are not just some oddities (that I love) that I have encountered over the years. These are, at least for my money, dyed-in-the-wool classics, every bit the match of their more famous counterparts, in various ways, and any one of them should be a guaranteed homerun for your Halloween viewing.

Starting last night, I began playing a game of the Alien RPG from Free League with Stu Horvath and the folks at Team Unwinnable. The game, a pre-gen “cinematic” scenario called “Destroyer of Worlds,” is a subscriber reward unlocked during the mag’s last subscription drive – and, incidentally, the next one is coming up soon.

We’ll be playing every Thursday night for at least the next couple of weeks and live-streaming the results, so feel free to tune in to Unwinnable’s Twitch channel, if you’re into that kind of thing. You can also watch not-live recordings of the previous game sessions, such as last night’s.

This is my first experience with live-streaming a roleplaying game – or anything else, really, although we did some live-streamed episodes of the Horror Pod Class for a while. It’s also my first experience with the Alien RPG, which is more what I’m here to talk about.

Longtime readers will know that the Alien franchise – and Aliens, in particular – holds a special place in my heart, so playing a game based around it, and specifically one in which we play marines, feeds back into a lot of things from my early life.

The Alien RPG is one of those roleplaying games that presents a much narrower field of possibilities than something like D&D. You would think this limitation, combined with an extensive knowledge of the source material, might make for games that felt stagnant or free from tension. Last night, at least, we found the opposite to be true.

There’s a very famous quote, from an interview with Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, in which Hitchcock explains the difference between suspense and surprise. “Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us,” Hitchcock begins. If the audience doesn’t know it’s there, everyone is surprised when it goes off. However, if the audience does know that it’s there, but the characters do not, that creates suspense.

(That’s a very shortened version. The full conversation is in Hitchcock/Truffaut.)

Something that is easy to forget in a roleplaying game is that you are both the audience and the protagonists. If you’re playing it right, there will be things that you, the players, know that your characters do not.

In some ways, narrative-focused games like Alien are better at exposing and exploiting this tension between character and player than a game like D&D could ever be – and there are other games, more narrative-driven yet, that are better at it still, and that even make it their central mechanism.

In the case of last night’s Alien game, our previous familiarity with the subject matter acted as the audience’s knowledge of the bomb beneath the table, forcing us, as players, to push our characters into situations that we knew (or thought we knew) were going to be disastrous, because they had no way of knowing what we knew. It also allowed us (the players) to be taken in by red herrings – misdirects for the audience that are largely meaningless to the characters.

It’s a reminder that RPGs are capable of more than we often remember to give them credit for, and a very sharp demonstration of Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table theory of suspense, and I’m looking forward to more surprises, more tension, more comedy, and more carnage in future installments of this Alien RPG live-stream!

“It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror. The air itself is filled with monsters.”
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

No sooner had the calendar flipped than the skirmishes began. September 1 is either still summer, or it’s the first day of Halloween. At least by observing the battle lines drawn up on Twitter and elsewhere across social media, you must choose a side.

Naturally, and to the surprise of no one, I am on the side of the Autumn People, described so evocatively by Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes: “For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond.”

There is a story in Ian Rogers’ Every House is Haunted which argues that autumn is a uniquely magical season because it is the only one that doesn’t exist in perpetuity somewhere on Earth. There are places where it is, for all intents and purposes, always winter, always summer, or even, arguably, always spring. But there is no place where it is always autumn.

There is, in other words, no October Country (described again by Bradbury): “That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.”

Perhaps the only country where it can be autumn all year round is the one in our hearts.

On September 1, I put up my Halloween decorations this year. As the rough beast that is Christmas slouches ever earlier in the year, decorative gourd season is squeezed shorter and shorter each anum, so what harm if it bleeds a little into the summer?

Little enough else of my behavior changes with the changing of the season. I am one of those Autumn People, and I watch monster movies all year long. If anything, only the tenor of the movies I seek out changes with the leaves. As the season turns, I want movies that evoke that small-town, autumnal beauty that represents Halloween as much as grinning pumpkins or sheeted ghosts.

I reach back, even more than I do the rest of the time, to black-and-white horrors that feel delightfully stagebound. To films that crunch with dry autumn leaves underfoot. October proper has its own traditions. There’s Nerd-o-ween, which I will be attending once again this year at the Screenland Armour, making my eighth year in a row, never having missed an occurrence, even the year that I was dying. There’s Analog Sunday, which will be rolling out a double-feature, and the Horror Pod Class, where we’ll be hosting Ghostwatch at the Stray Cat Film Center. And then, of course, there’s the fact that my own new collection should be out in time for Halloween – or thereabouts.

While September is the first month of Halloween, though, it hasn’t quite reached the same saturation point for me. Monster movies are still the order of the day, wherever possible, or creaky thrillers replete with cobwebs. But the seasonal quality of them hasn’t yet solidified. Alien invaders and city-crushing kaiju are still fair game in September, as much as they are the rest of the year.

As I said, I keep the October Country in my heart year round, but I also watch a lot of other kinds of movies. In September and October, it’s monster weather. Ghost stories will come, as October ramps up and the winter gradually shakes the leaves from the trees. For the moment, though, give me rubber creatures or old dark houses, and I’ll be happy – a sentiment that I could honestly aver any time of year, without hesitation.

This will necessarily contain major spoilers for both Nightmare Alley (1947) and GDT’s remake. These are also raw reactions, fresh off watching the remake for the first time. They may soften as time goes on, as has been the case with many other GDT films.

Well, Nightmare Alley (2021) looks great, anyway. And normally, in a Guillermo del Toro film, the looks are more than just skin deep. GDT’s films are generally crammed with what he calls “eye protein,” and the visuals typically do more narrative heavy lifting than the script or the characters. With Nightmare Alley, though – a movie he has been talking about remaking for probably a decade or more – he is shackled to a narrative that already exists. A story that has already been told, better and more economically than it is here, which makes all the show-stopping visuals feel strangely superfluous, rather than integral.

For those who don’t already know, Nightmare Alley is a remake of the 1947 film of the same name – which is, itself, an adaptation of a novel from 1946 by William Lindsay Gresham, which I have never read. There are a few things holding the 1947 original back from genuine greatness, but it is built around one of noir’s more dynamite central premises, following a carnival performer turned mentalist named Stanton Carlisle as he teams up with a femme fatale psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

In the original, Carlisle is played by Tyrone Power, while the psychiatrist (with the very good villain name Lilith Ritter) is played by Helen Walker. In Del Toro’s version, they are Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, respectively. Honestly, the casting in the 2021 Nightmare Alley, like the visuals, is mostly great. The problem comes from that story.

As I mentioned, the story of the 1947 original is one of the better ones in noir. Del Toro and his collaborator Kim Morgan know that, and stick close to it. Perhaps too close, turning this new Nightmare Alley into a fascinating study of why modern movies are insufferably long, as it hits all the same beats as the original, but takes almost a full hour longer to do it.

It doesn’t help that the places where the remake chooses to deviate add little – and sometimes detract. Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle is not a patch on Tyrone Power’s, but that has less to do with any deficiency in his acting and more to do with how the character is written and directed. Given a traumatic backstory from literally the first scene, Cooper’s Carlisle is too much a damaged child to ever be the man with a hole where his soul should be that Power played so well.

In fact, one of the few places where the original film missteps is in not rolling credits soon enough. There’s a moment, near the end of the film, when Carlisle has fallen as far as he ever will, and is offered a job he once swore he would never take. When asked if he thinks he’s up for it, he replies, “Mister, I was born for it.”

Had the original rolled credits there, it would probably be unassailable. As it is, it runs on a few minutes more. Del Toro learned the original’s lesson, though, and does cut the film at those fateful lines – except that when Cooper’s Carlisle finally utters them, they hit completely differently than when Power’s Carlisle did.

More than anything, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a film that struggles to justify itself. Why this, when we could just be watching the original? The production designs are certainly better here – the carnival looks great, as you might imagine, and Ritter’s office is a triumph of the production designer’s art – but they seem to add little of substance. And for all that Del Toro has been itching to make this movie for years, he only seems to come alive when the ghoulish parts are happening.

There’s a moment, in the last act, when a bloody “ghost” appears in a sequence that harkens to his work on Crimson Peak. It comes after a long span of relative “normalcy,” in which the carnival and its oddities have been left behind. There’s almost an audible “pop” when the moment happens, as the film suddenly snaps back into sharp focus, as though it’s been on autopilot for minutes and is only now paying attention once more.

All of this is extremely hard on Nightmare Alley, which isn’t quite fair. Del Toro has certainly made worse movies in his career, and I can’t shake the feeling that – had I never previously seen the original – this might have worked a lot better for me. In fact, as much as I love the guy’s work, Del Toro has a few movies that I kind of hate. But usually, with his movies, it’s one or the other. I love them or hate them, and even when I hate them, I’m drawn into them. Nightmare Alley may be the first time I just felt… indifferent, which is possibly more damning.

Ironically, Wikipedia identifies this 2021 version as a new adaptation of the novel, rather than a remake of the 1947 film. If it had been that, it might have been spared some of these problems. While the novel and both movies have the same central premise and most of the same broad story beats, the novel goes several places the movies never do. If Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley had followed the novel instead of the film, maybe it could have better carved a niche for itself where it felt less uncomfortable.