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You need to watch the scariest noir thriller on HBO Max ASAP

Guillermo del Toro doesn’t need monsters to tell a chilling horror story.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water won Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars for its moving story of love against all odds. It’s a celebration of those treated as monsters by society and a desperate call for empathy.

Del Toro’s latest movie is also about people living on the fringes of society, but it couldn’t be more different from The Shape of Water.

Based on a 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter who mostly by chance ends up working for a traveling carnival run by the shady Clem (Willem Dafoe).

He’s quickly swept up into the carnival, befriending phony medium Zeena (Toni Collette) and falling in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act involves her own theatrical electrocution.

Things take a turn when Stan and Molly go on the road with their own mentalist act, quickly running into psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). Ritter sweeps Stan into a con involving some of her wealthy clients, which soon spirals out of control.

You might have noticed that description is devoid of monsters or any fantastical elements whatsoever. In Nightmare Alley, del Toro leaves his usual subjects behind to focus on plain old human beings — though it would be fair to call many of them monstrous.

This change in genre serves del Toro incredibly well. Nightmare Alley is noir through and through, and the director’s experience of probing loneliness, depravity, and existentialism makes it a perfect match.

As one would expect from del Toro, Nightmare Alley is beautiful to behold, its ugly subject matter lovingly shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who also worked with del Toro on The Shape of Water).

True to its noir roots, Nightmare Alley is shot through with deep shadows broken by pinpricks of light from carnival rides and flashes of fire.

Gold tones become a constant presence later in the film, as do curling smoke and drifting snow.

For all its visual grandeur, some of Nightmare Alley’s most important scenes play out in facial expressions and tiny gestures.

It’s also here that Rooney Mara shines, continuing her long streak of being one of the most underrated actresses around.

Though it veers away from traditional horror, Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s most disturbing film to date — and his bleakest.

Early in the film, Stan is warned by a former mentalist not to believe his own bullshit — a crucial piece of advice immediately discarded.

He’s given warning after warning and countless chances to escape his fate, but in the end, Stan is seemingly the last one to see the trap he’s walking into by taking his act too far.

Stan’s self-inflicted descent is tough to stomach, but Nightmare Alley is unmissable. It’s up for four Oscars this year, including Best Picture.

Nightmare Alley is streaming now on HBO Max and Hulu.

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