The great Mary Shelley and her most famous novel, Frankenstein, have long been a fascination for filmmakers. Most recently, 2017’s Mary Shelley made a decent effort of contextualizing her for a modern audience, as Elle Fanning did a spirited job of bringing the legendary author to life with her many idiosyncrasies and contradictions defiantly intact. When Twitter was all aflutter about proud TERF J.K. Rowling being the first great female author, it was Shelley’s name that many used as a rallying cry against the wildly inaccurate claim. If you know anything about the English author, it’s either the laced-up origin story about how she wrote her most famous novel or the bodice-ripping version that involves, among other things, Shelley losing her virginity on her mother’s grave.
Neither is present in A Nightmare Wakes, the debut feature from Nora Unkel, who also penned the ungainly script. Her curiously unfocused film opens with an arresting image of a pregnant woman walking into a lake to drown herself, before abruptly changing course to focus on the happy-go-lucky lives of a group of friends residing in the kind of spacious period properties where ghostly presences are a given. Mary (Alix Wilton Regan) is living comfortably with partner Percy (Giullian Yao Gioiello) — even though he has a wife elsewhere — while Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen) can’t seem to stop kissing everybody or even put a shirt on. One night, during a rowdy party, a proposal is made; the men shall concoct their scariest ghost stories and try to spook each other. Naturally, Mary also takes part.
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Presenting the writing process onscreen is rife with difficulties, since it’s impossible to show somebody sitting around tapping away on a computer or typewriter — or even, in this case, using a quill and ink — for hours without it becoming tiresome. So, with the representation of so-called hacking (since what characters are doing onscreen is rarely that), certain stylistic flourishes must be utilized to make the process appear more visually enticing. Unkel chooses to simply rotate the camera wildly around Mary as she scribbles like a woman possessed, while the scene changes clunkily and unconvincingly as various characters and props are introduced in her story. It doesn’t take long for Mary to start talking to Victor Frankenstein himself, either.
Evidently, the process of writing Frankenstein changed Shelley forever, and indeed her life. In A Nightmare Wakes, however, it’s suggested that she actually lost her mind as a result, which is certainly a choice, albeit not one most scholars or even casual fans of the woman would agree with. There’s a recurring motif featuring the author walking slowly down a darkened hall, with just a single candlestick to light her way. The morning after one such occasion, she tells Percy about the nightmare but adds, of the door, “this time it finally opened.” Breakthroughs are typically positive in pop culture, but it seems as though Mary is signaling she’s about to spiral out of control — indeed, early on, there’s a perturbing shot of a spiral staircase done in wishy-washy blue carpet, which also hints at her debilitating mental state.
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A Nightmare Wakes suggests it took Mary a long time to come up with the central thesis for Frankenstein, even though common knowledge would have us believe she got the idea from increasingly vivid dreams, her refuge from the real world. In Unkel’s film, it takes her an interminably long time to get to the idea of the re-animated corpse, even despite the fact she’s surrounded by dead things — a fly on the porch, flowers thrown away without thought and even babies, as poor Mary’s life is plagued by stillbirths and miscarriages. In fact, although she suffers a violent, bloody loss early on, it’s later suggested (rather offensively) that Mary is to blame for the death of yet another child, which is a galling choice considering how unlucky the woman was with her pregnancies in real life.
Unkel’s film isn’t on Mary’s side, and doesn’t expect the audience to be either, so why choose to tell her story in the first place? Is there reason to believe this celebrated author, frequently considered the mother of sci-fi, was the real monster? According to A Nightmare Wakes, yes, the real monster was indeed Mary Shelley herself. Percy is presented as an entitled prick, even though the Shelleys were hugely supportive of each other’s work in reality, but the film treats him as a victim, despite allusions to his real-life affair with Mary’s sister (played by Claire Glassford). Mary deserves what she gets, Unkel appears to be arguing, because she pushes everybody away. Most jarringly, Mary’s pain is presented in a very literal sense, such as when she cries black ink onto parchment paper, as though Frankenstein is a sickness that needs to be expunged. There’s just one moment of defiance from the supposed heroine — when Mary refuses to stop writing — but it’s so fleeting that it barely registers.
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Making a gothic horror story about the creation of a gothic horror story is a worthy and potentially enlightening idea, but Unkel fumbles the ball at every turn with A Nightmare Wakes.The color palette is muted and sickly, making it unclear why these English toffs have adjourned to the countryside in the first place (in reality, Mary and Percy had fled their homeland to be together in sunny Europe, but bad weather relegated them indoors with friends, where ghost stories were written and shared). There’s no great sense of time or place, and an awful lot of background information is required to contextualize the events depicted onscreen. A Nightmare Wakes isn’t hard to follow per se, it’s just insubstantial. Mary offers no insight either because she’s a cypher, rather than a fully-formed character.
The casting is odd, too, as Regan looks considerably older than Gioiello (she’s seven years his senior). Mary was a teenager when she first met Percy, which goes some way towards explaining why the young woman ran off and gave up her life for him. Here, Mary is clearly the more mature one, with Gioiello’s baby face giving him away even during his most brutal actions towards her. Likewise, the decision to have the same actor portraying Percy and Victor is a confusing one. Although it suggests the character was heavily influenced by Mary’s tempestuous relationship with her husband, it makes little sense visually and takes away from the gravity of her predicament. Gioiello also isn’t a strong enough performer to differentiate between the two. As Victor, he simply glowers more.
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Mary Shelley was an impressive and complicated woman with a fascinating history, that much is clear. Her most famous work has been a fixture in pop culture for as long as most of us can remember and will likely continue to be excavated long after we’re all gone — and rightly so. There’s certainly a great film to be made detailing her struggles writing Frankenstein, and another as simply a biopic of the fascinating life she evidently led. A Nightmare Wakes is neither. At best, it’s a misguided attempt to make a gothic horror story about the most famous gothic horror story writer in history. At worst, it’s an insult to the legacy of that very same genius.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.