February 3, 2021 A Nightmare Wakes (Movie Review)
Few stories in the history of dark literature have been told quite as frequently as the infamous evening that inspired the 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Now moviegoers can experience the birth of the creature for themselves in a haunting new Shudder Original entitled A Nightmare Wakes, which arrives exclusively to the VOD service on Thursday, February 4, 2021.
A feature-length debut for exceptional Writer-Director Nora Unkel (The Goblin Song short 2015, Stray short 2020), A Nightmare Wakes features the acting talents of Alix Wilton Regan (The Wife 2017, The Isle 2018), Giullian Gioiello (Iron Fist series, Scream: The TV Series series), Philippe Bowgen (The Mick series, Supernatural series), Claire Glassford (Limitless series, Collateral Beauty 2016), and Lee Garrett (Bull series, The Undoing mini-series).
The film wastes no time in diving beneath the surface, straight into the retelling of that now famous evening at Lake Geneva. Gathered in a villa rented by Lord George Byron (Bowgen) is a group of high-profile acquaintances that includes Dr. John Polidori (Garrett), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Gioiello), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Regan), and her step-sister Claire Clairmont (Glassford). When a challenge is born of the dreary night, each is tasked with authoring a horrific story. Indeed, it is this night that will inspire the creation of Mary’s Frankenstein, as well as Polidori’s 1819 short story The Vampyre. (Less notable for fans of Horror, Percy’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” was also conceived during this same holiday.)
But the conception of greatness is merely the start in A Nightmare Wakes, as Unkel takes her viewers through the torrid love affair between Mary and Percy, a complicated entanglement that is haunted by the famous novel. From family troubles to infidelity, passion to loss, this is the story of a couple whose romance was as complicated as the emotions they each penned on paper.
At 90 minutes, A Nightmare Wakes combines real history with fiction, detailing its dramatics through stunning scenery and flawless cinematography from Oren Soffer (Opera of Cruelty short 2017, See You Soon short 2020), as well as a beautifully emotive Classical score by Jon Cziner (Blood Bath short 2014, The Goblin Song short 2015). And to convey the period piece properly, Jennifer Stroud (House at the End of the Street 2012, The Blackcoat’s Daughter 2015) offers her elegantly understated costume design.
All of this said, it’s important to emphasize that A Nightmare Wakes is Historical Fiction and not an accurate retelling of the creation of the Gothic classic. Creative liberties are taken with the story to offer moviegoers a dramatic affair that, in many ways, echoes themes within Mary Shelley’s works. Throughout, Unkel employs a plethora of metaphors that flit across the screen like visual poetry, asking her viewers to consider the parallels between the fictional characters and their real life counterparts. Within all of this, there’s an artful finesse to how Unkel chooses to depict Mary’s creative process, one that elevates the film and offers insight into the feverish inspiration that can befall an impassioned writer.
However, we feel it fair to note that there is a very uncomfortable and intentionally protracted non-consensual sex scene, one that might be triggering to some, particularly victims of domestic abuse. Interestingly, Unkel later counters this scene with a highly sensual moment, one that speaks volumes with its obvious absence. Which is clearly the point, because, as it is depicted within the film, the Shelley’s relationship would be very difficult to describe as a ‘love affair.’ Instead, it is a version of co-dependence packaged as love, marked by emotional manipulation, neglect, and abuse.
Considering the sophisticated poise that masks a dark truth, A Nightmare Wakes is easy to construe as a metaphoric tale within a metaphor, one that raises intriguing questions about the literary analysis of a famous piece of literature. It’s a careful path to walk for the cast, as their performances must appeal beyond bibliophiles and Shelley fans, engaging a modern audience with modern sensibilities. Helming the production, Regan delivers an adroit performance as Mary, a woman who, in some respects, was far ahead of her time. Yet there’s a submissiveness to the heroine—one likely borne of Shelley’s real life beliefs—that seemingly keeps her from reaching her utmost potential.
So, is Frankenstein a metaphor for Mary’s personal search for love? We cannot say, but there are definitely two ways in which to interpret this film: some viewers will tumble skirts over ears into the romantic fantasy of two tortured artists and their torrid love affair, while others will scoff at this fanciful assessment. In any piece of history, the truth, generally speaking, falls somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately, as with many exceptional female writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has often been historically reduced to the wife of the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a woman who just so happened to write a Gothic novel. A Nightmare Wakes flips that script, offering a deeper look at a groundbreaking author who was in a relationship that was seemingly destined to fail. So, though the film might not be historically accurate in its entirety, it certainly offers plenty of food for thought. For this, Cryptic Rock gives A Nightmare Wakes 4 of 5 stars.