Over the past decade February has come to be recognized as Women in Horror Month, and there is no better woman in horror to start the month with than Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. A Nightmare Wakes attempts to capture the drama of Shelley’s real life while also imagining the process that gave us, what some suggest is, the original science fiction novel. In her first feature film, writer/director Nora Unkel walks the line between biopic and gothic opium dream. Unkel and her majority female production crew put a strong focus on period specific details while also employing a racially diverse cast.
As the film starts, we join a story that seems to already be in progress. A pregnant Mary (Alix Wilton Regan), not-yet husband and renowned poet Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello), and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont (Claire Glassford) are arriving at the Swiss home of Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen). Unfortunately, the only way to know any of this is to come to the table with a working knowledge of Mary Shelley’s life as well as the basic plot of Frankenstein. The slow build of the film does give the viewer a chance to catch up a bit, but it also sets a drudging pace as we watch the same parties, quarrels, and nightmares play out over and over again. We are meant to feel as though we are watching Mary descend into madness under the weight of the story she is preparing to birth, but any tension built is wasted as promising threads seem to be abandoned before they are fully explored.
The span of a movie is, of course, not enough time to fully tell the story of a life as rich and fascinating as Shelley’s, but A Nightmare Wakes attempts to shove years into what seems to be just months. Shelley faced multiple miscarriages and the loss of young children in her life, but these real-life horrors are stepped through so quickly in this telling that they appear as nothing more than touchstones to paint Mary as a woman obsessed with a story–to the destruction of everything else in her life. The intention is clearly to tie the creation of Frankenstein to the pain of these losses, but the story never quite gets there.
While I came to this film eager to watch the weaving of Frankenstein with Shelley’s real life, I ultimately felt confused and disappointed. The colors, period details, and orchestral score shoot for gothic but land closer to melodramatic, and the story becomes downright tedious in parts. I found myself longing for more parties at Lord Byrons and more nightmarish visualizations of the monster that Mary was struggling to bring to life.You probably will too.
A Nightmare Wakes comes to Shudder on February 4th, 2021.