The circumstances that led to the creation of Mary Shelley‘s masterpiece Frankenstein are almost as famous as the novel itself. So enduring is the image of the gathering on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 during which the novel was Mary’s response to a challenge set by Lord Byron, that several have tried to capture the magic onscreen down the decades. James Whale, Ken Russell, Gonzalo Suarez, and Haifaa Al-Mansour have all adapted the story in various forms, and with varying degrees of success. The latest is Nora Unkel, who aims to cast the process of creation as a tortuous horror in its own right, a potent mix of blood and ink. However, her Mary is fatally cast as a hysteric being destroyed by her creation, rather than an independent woman and roaring talent on her own terms.
A Nightmare Wakes opens as Mary (Alix Wilton Regan) is visiting Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen) in Geneva in the company of her then lover Percy Bysshe Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello) and step-sister Claire Clairmont (Claire Glassford), Byron’s lover. While bound indoors by dreadful weather, Byron proposes that the guests write ghost stories for entertainment. This is the seed of John Polidori‘s The Vampyre, and Frankenstein. The process of writing becomes at first disconcerting and then terrifying for Mary. She’s haunted by the loss of her children and begins to cast her family and friends in the roles of her characters, finding herself becoming monstrous in the process.
The sins of A Nightmare Wakes are many. Not the least of these is positing a progressive and feminist reading of the creative process while apparently suggesting that this very process is far too much for the mind of a young female author to cope with. Mary may have struggled with depression and grief, for very valid reasons, and Frankenstein is fraught and vivid with loss. Granted, it’s far more difficult to depict the process of a writer in a cinematic way than, say, a painter (see Joe Begos‘ hallucinatory Bliss as a good example), but to posit the novel as a destructive process rather than a positive act of catharsis seems retrograde.
Aside from its central thesis, the execution is simply tedious, with the sense of being viewed through a laudanum haze. Unkel conflates darkness for atmosphere, so it’s necessary to squint through a perpetual gloomy fog that renders it muddled and visually flat. It’s also far too beholden to the trappings of Gothic melodrama, and in its po-faced self-seriousness it edges towards unintentional camp. This isn’t helped by some dismal performances. Alix Wilton Regan is fine, but too old for the role, which is written as if all dynamism was surgically removed. Bowgen’s Byron is a dreadful caricature of louche, decadent flamboyance (and also missing the club foot, but that’s a minor bugbear), while Gioiello’s Shelley is sullen, petulant, and veers between disinterested and sexually violent. Sadly, it never reaches its admirable ambitions and is a rare dud put out under the banner of the Shudder channel.
A Nightmare Wakes is yet another attempt to reckon with the rare invention of the young Mary Godwin Shelley that contains not a spark of the brilliance of her legendary novel. Perhaps in rooting every attempt firmly as a period piece – and possibly subconsciously taking on all of the attendant constraints and tropes – they miss the very modern heart of the story. It was a novel pulsing with loss and yearning, but was also incredibly forward-thinking and stuffed with ideas drawn from the contemporary cutting edge. Or maybe it’s an indication to simply let an iconic work and its creation be without throwing them on the dissecting table. Because, unlike Victor Frankenstein’s efforts, the results are too frequently lifeless.
Availble to stream on Shudder from Thu 4 Feb 2021