A Nightmare Wakes is a gothic tale of misery and monsters that, despite its interesting premise, manages to fall rather flat.
Within the first ten minutes, Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen) declares to his friends that he is quite bored, a feeling which quite frankly remains throughout the film. With the slow pace and lack of any real action—for entire scenes, at times—the film does seem to drag despite its relatively short length.
Written and directed by Nora Unkel, A Nightmare Wakes is a psychological horror focusing on writer Mary Shelley, the creation of her most famous novel Frankenstein and her tumultuous relationship with the poet Percy Shelley.
In the scenes that do have some form of story to them, the narrative largely strips Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) of any real agency. She is presented as a hallucinating, hysterical woman doing whatever she’s told by the men in her life. At times, the text of her novel appears as if it has written itself. Other times, she hallucinates the events of the novel as playing out before her own eyes. Stripping Mary Shelley of the agency she had in writing Frankenstein is rather an odd narrative choice, and a somewhat dull one at that. Moreover, around half an hour into the film, there is a quite unnecessary rape scene. The scene itself is rather graphic and does not really bring anything to plot other than Mary becoming pregnant. While this scene does add to the dark and gritty atmosphere of the film, it is still not particularly necessary in regards to the wider story being told.
Anyone who is a stickler for historical accuracy in films will find themselves quite disappointed by A Nightmare Wakes. However, with the great performances given by Regan, Gioiello and Grassford, the somewhat strange relationships between the Shelleys and Clairmont is brought to life. The jealousy and discontent Mary feels towards the growing relationship between her husband and step-sister is shown throughout the film; at one point Mary imagines the two as Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza. This jealousy culminates in a heart-wrenching scene in which she demands that Claire leaves their house.
Speaking of historical accuracy, it does seem a rather odd choice that, with Mary Shelley’s madness and the creation of the monster being representative of motherhood and childbirth, there is not one mention that Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, actually did die in childbirth. Some literary critics have suggested that Mary’s fear of childbirth is shown throughout her novel and stems from this, so it does seem strange to seemingly gloss over this.
Despite many of the film’s problems, Alex Wilton Regan is phenomenal in the role of Mary Shelley. Regan truly brings to life the movie’s version of Shelley, and does to some extent make up for what the film is lacking in many other aspects. The film was also vastly improved thanks to the great performances of Giullian Yao Gioiello and Claire Grassford as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Claire Clairmont respectively. The beautiful shots of Lake Geneva show that another of the film’s few saving graces is its great cinematography and production design. The contrast between the story and Mary’s hallucinations and the eerie atmosphere given to many of the film’s scenes is also wonderfully done and adds to the gothic feel of the film itself.
With Unkel at the helm and a majority female crew working behind the scenes, one might expect this film to have something of a feminist twist on an already pretty good premise. However, this is sadly not the case. Mary is stripped of her agency, while her step-sister Claire is reduced to a sidekick, attempting to raise Mary’s baby for her while she is distracted with writing her novel. The removal of Claire Clairmont’s child with Lord Byron from the story is somewhat strange in this light.
Despite the impressive performances by the cast A Nightmare Wakes is still a rather disappointing film, proving that there really isn’t much point making a Frankenstein movie without the monster himself.
A Nightmare Wakes is streaming now on Shudder.
Words by Isobel Pankhurst
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