The Shudder original turns the creation of Frankenstein into bad psychodrama theater.
It shouldn’t be so hard to write a good movie about Mary Shelley. The life of the mother of science fiction and horror writing is endlessly fascinating (and tragic), and yet all we’ve gotten is Ken Russell’s deliriously over the top Gothic, and Haifaa al-Mansour’s soap opera romance Mary Shelley. Both movies, despite being wildly different in tone, make the mistake of focusing almost entirely on Shelley’s relationship with Percy Shelley, and their relationship with Lord Byron, who invariably comes off as an oversexed, insufferable dandy. Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes makes the same mistake, while treating Shelley, a brilliant, innovative writer, as a helpless victim of her own imagination.
Despite it being a Shudder original, A Nightmare Wakes stretches the definition of “horror movie.” It’s closer to a psychological drama with elements of historical fiction, emphasis on “fiction.” Unkel takes so many liberties with the true life story of the creation of Frankenstein that one wonders why she simply didn’t make a few tweaks and turn it into a wholly original story. It would make more sense than why Mary Shelley, the main character here, comes off so poorly in her own story.
The film opens with Mary (Alix Wilton Regan), her married lover Percy (Giullian Yao Gioiello), and her stepsister Claire (Claire Glassford) taking that fateful weekend trip to visit Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen), who here has boy band hair and never buttons his shirt. Byron challenges his visitors to come up with the most frightening ghost story they can think of, and it’s here that the problems with the movie begin (other than yet again spending too much time focusing on Byron). Mary, emotionally fragile after the loss of a child, desperately clings to her relationship with Percy, whose feelings for her seem to change depending on the weather. Her writing of Frankenstein isn’t born of creativity, but rather a desperate cry of a gradually fracturing mind.
Unkel takes so many liberties with the true life story of the creation of Frankenstein that one wonders why she simply didn’t make a few tweaks and turn it into a wholly original story.
Like a lot of bad movies about the “creative process,” A Nightmare Wakes suggests that you have to be at least a little crazy to be a writer, and that writers don’t invent their characters, they’re haunted by them. Mary’s characters whisper her name and show up at inopportune times. She even imagines Victor Frankenstein as holding her hand when she gives birth, while Percy is off partying with Byron. Writing Frankenstein is nothing short of torture for Mary, eating up all her time, impacting her relationships, and even interfering with her ability to be a good mother to her infant son, none of which has any basis in historical fact. The takeaway is that if she had been happy and in a normal, stable relationship, she would have never thought of such horrifying things, which is both (a) incorrect, and (b) insulting to the target audience, many of whom are likely to be horror writers themselves.
By the last fifteen minutes of A Nightmare Wakes, Mary’s become a monster herself, consumed with rage and jealousy, and if you’re not clear on that, another character says “You’re a monster, Mary.” It’s a bizarrely unflattering portrayal of a key figure in horror literature, particularly considering there’s no evidence that in real life Mary Shelley was tormented by the things she wrote, any more than Neil Gaiman or Stephen King are.
Up to that conclusion, A Nightmare Wakes is a dry and detached drama, broken up with the occasional nightmare or sex scene. With most of the action taking place in Mary and Percy’s summer home, it feels a bit like a stage play, with the occasionally broad acting to go with it. Though there was plenty of strife in Mary Shelley’s real life (poverty, lost children, Percy dying just four years after Frankenstein was published), Unkel felt manufactured drama was more interesting. Almost as if anticipating that Frankenstein would be a game-changing smash, Mary’s male counterparts, including Dr. John Polidori, immediately set about trying to undermine her. It doesn’t really come to much except to make Mary paranoid and angry, and get her closer to the misguided point that Unkel is trying to make: only a diseased mind could come up with such things as Frankenstein. It’s not true, and Mary Shelley deserves better.
A Nightmare Wakes is now playing on Shudder.