The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Shudder] - A NIGHTMARE WAKES | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Shudder] - A NIGHTMARE WAKES

a nightmare wakes review
While conceiving of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley undergoes a series of real and imagined horrors.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Nora Unkel

Starring: Alix Wilton Regan, Philippe Bowgen, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Lee Garrett, Claire Glassford

a nightmare wakes poster

The famous gathering of Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin), Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, John William Polidori and Lord Byron at a villa on Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 - which led to the conception of Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' - has previously been recounted in such films as James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, Ken Russell's Gothic, Gonzalo Suárez's Rowing with the Wind and most recently Haifaa al-Mansour's Mary Shelley. With her directorial debut, A Nightmare Wakes, Nora Unkel is the latest to attempt to detail Mary Shelley's creative and personal life, combining the two as a hallucinatory horror movie.

a nightmare wakes review

Compressing various aspects of Shelley's life into roughly a year spent in Geneva, A Nightmare Wakes sees the then Mary Godwin (Alix Wilton Regan) arrive with her married lover, the romantic poet Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello) and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Claire Glassford) at the villa of Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen). Soon after arriving, Mary loses her unborn child through a miscarriage. Percy doesn't seem all that bothered by the incident and appears to have eyes for Claire.

Bored one night, Byron challenges his guests to come up with a horror story, and thus Mary begins work on what will become her most famous literary creation. While writing the story, Mary suffers from a series of nightmarish hallucinations in which she is visited by the character of Victor Frankenstein and sees blood oozing through the walls and her lost infant returning from beyond the grave. She also has to contend with Percy, whom she eventually marries upon falling pregnant once more. Percy is at once controlling and inattentive towards his wife.

a nightmare wakes review

Try as they might, filmmakers have yet to find a way to make the writing process cinematic. No amount of swirling camera and swelling score can make someone hunched over a typewriter - or in this case, scribbling with a quill - seem exciting. Unkel's decision to blur the lines between Mary's private hell and the nightmarish creations of her mind may have yielded more worthwhile results if her hallucinations weren't so generic - they never quite tie into her novel in a satisfying or organic manner, rather they feel like they've been borrowed from any random psychological horror movie. It doesn't help that the film is lit so murkily that you'll be squinting through most of its night scenes to figure out what you're seeing.

Wilton Regan does her best in the lead role, but she's essentially playing a character who has been reduced to a hysterical stereotype. Based on this version of Mary Shelley, you might wonder how she ever had a writing career, as she appears quite mad. Even more one-dimensional is Percy, one of the great literary figures repurposed as a caddish boyfriend whose blandly written dialogue never remotely suggests his abilities as a poet. The pair are an odd choice to portray the famous couple. Mary was a mere 19 when she wrote 'Frankenstein', yet she's played by the thirtysomething Wilton Regan, who appears visibly older than the boyish Gioiello, despite Percy being five years her senior. This visually graphic age disparity dilutes the idea of Percy as a controlling force, as Mary often comes off as his older sister rather than his younger lover.

a nightmare wakes review

A Nightmare Wakes awkwardly appropriates the conception of 'Frankenstein' for the MeToo era, suggesting the story was inspired by the weight Mary Shelley felt on her shoulders as a woman of her era, and equating the mad baron with her own husband. Shouldn't it then suggest that she sees herself in the monster, a slave of man? After all, even back in 1935 James Whale explored this notion by casting the same actress (Elsa Lanchester) as both Mary Shelley and the monster. In boiling Mary Shelley's story down to a rigidly feminist framework, it neglects the wider social landscape of the period and how 'Frankenstein' was a product of an era when Britain was experiencing an unprecedented industrial revolution that led workers to fear they would be replaced by automation, while simultaneously being mired in seemingly endless conflicts with its European neighbours. Now there's a story with modern relevance!

A Nightmare Wakes
 is on Shudder from February 4th.

2021 movie reviews