By Steph Cannon
Crafting a story is often equal parts pain and pleasure. This seems especially true with a majority of the classics we are all familiar with. For every dark, twisted tale, there is nearly always a mirrored real-life account of the tortured soul who created it. Nora Unkel's A NIGHTMARE WAKES explores this topic with one of the most famous horror story/troubled author duos of all time - Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.
Beautifully shot, haunting, and at times unsettling, A NIGHTMARE WAKES is more a biopic about Shelley's descent into madness than it is a horror movie. The tragic, personal details of Shelley's life and her troubled relationship with husband Percy (played by Giullian Yao Gioiello) are the primary focus of the film. Alix Wilton Regan's performance as Mary Shelley is both mesmerizing and disturbing. This is a movie that pulls no punches when it comes to recounting the grim specifics of the events that both traumatized Shelley as well as aid her in capturing the essence of Frankenstein.
The beginning of the movie dives right into this with the Shelleys' weekend visit to poet Lord Byron's estate, where they are promptly forced to shelter inside from bad weather. Bored and disappointed by this turn of events, Byron challenges his guests to tell each other ghost stories, and thus a monster is born. This is where the greatest allegorical irony of the story comes into play, as Shelley herself is portrayed to be slowly going insane, mostly from the trauma of a late-term miscarriage she had suffered.
While in the process of writing, she is depicted as going into a trance-like, almost delirious state, and it is implied that she began to view herself as just as odious as Dr. Frankenstein's creation itself. All of this, along with the compounding grief from the loss they have suffered, begins to cause a rift between Mary and the emotionally and physically absent Percy. The choice to spend less time on the actual story of Frankenstein and more on the struggles of both Mary and Percy during it's inception is both a bold and unique take by Unkel, who makes her directorial debut.
There is a distinct feeling that Frankenstein was truly Mary Shelley's actual baby, as she tries desperately to hang onto her own reality while facing various obstacles that impede her from completing the book. The end result, as we all know, is regarded as one of history's greatest works of fiction.
While it stays mostly historically accurate, A NIGHTMARE WAKES does appear to take some liberties, but the overall sense of tragedy and mental instability Shelley endured is felt greatly. Only a few scenes fall into the traditional "horror" category, but there are a handful of moments that would be considered disturbing and even shocking. Instances do occur where the timeline jumps back and forth in a way that's sometimes hard to follow, but this could very well have been the intent of the filmmakers to help add to the chaos of the story. It's that chaos that truly defines the life of Mary Shelley, and this depiction of the author is quite possibly the strangest and most ambitious to date.
A NIGHTMARE WAKES begins streaming exclusively with Shudder starting February 4th.