Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones stare at each other through the glass in The Shape of Water.

When you’ve built a reputation for weaving fantastical worlds full of monsters and the supernatural, it’s hard to shake that sort of image. But if it’s writer/director Guillermo del Toro that’s the subject of discussion, the preconceived notions are even harder to deny. So when moviegoers see the title of his next film, a re-adaptation of author William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, they’re probably going to expect more of the same from the man who won big with The Shape of Water. Which, as the director himself has confirmed, couldn’t be further from the truth.

As he spoke with Vanity Fair, who has provided a first look at images from the Bradley Cooper/Cate Blanchett headed ensemble film, Guillermo del Toro made it abundantly clear what to expect from Nightmare Alley. If you’re expecting a period piece full of well dressed people doing horrible things, then so far so good. But the crucial distinction between Searchlight Pictures’ December release and the rest of del Toro’s filmography is best described in the man’s own words:

That is a distinct possibility. It has happened to me in the past with Crimson Peak, where people went in expecting a horror movie. I knew it was a gothic romance but it was very difficult to put that across. But yes, this has no supernatural element. It’s based completely in a reality world. There is nothing fantastic. It’s a very different movie from my usual, but yes, the title and my name would create that [impression].

The burden of expectations subverted hit pretty hard when 2015’s Crimson Peak was marketed as more of a chilling ghost story, rather than a gothic romance with touches of the supernatural. Even Guillermo del Toro himself chalks the losses of that film to the marketing campaign, and as such the $50 million budgeted film wasn’t so impressive when it only brought in $75 million at the box office. So one could see why del Toro wants to get out ahead of the game and firmly sell Nightmare Alley for the type of film it is.

Accompanying this interview is a selection of photographs, showing stars like Bradley Cooper, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara all decked out in period appropriate finery. So if the viewing public isn’t quite sure what to expect from Nightmare Alley, this tantalizing first look is sure to set the right tone. Even in the special promo reel Searchlight Pictures ran with a special advanced screening of Nomadland, the early footage showing Bradley Cooper’s scheming cad looked adjacent to the lush visual world of The Shape of Water.

The monstrosity of Nightmare Alley is purely human, and it’s headed to theaters before the end of the year. Originally slated to open at the beginning of December as a limited release, a recent reshuffle of the calendar has upgraded Guillermo del Toro’s noir thriller to a wide release on December 17th. So we should probably expect a trailer to finally drop at some point in the next month.

As that’s the same day the Disney adjacent Spider-Man: No Way Home is set to drop in theaters, it feels like the studio feels like they have a counterprogramming hit on their hands. But if you want to get the full picture of what December has to offer at a theater near you, 2021’s release schedule is practically the perfect roadmap. Though if you want to see some monsters connected to the creative mind of Guillermo del Toro, Antlers is still on its way to scratch that itch on October 29th.

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