A NIGHTMARE WAKES is a fictionalized retelling of the life of writer Mary Shelley, written and directed by Nora Unkel. Her story is told, in an interesting twist, as an adaptation of her popular 1818 novel Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus. As most people are familiar with at least the basics of Frankenstein, the viewer’s experience is not limited, nor does it require much prior knowledge.
The story begins simply. Mary, her lover, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her sister Claire are visiting friend and fellow poet Lord Byron at his home where he often throws long, lavish, and opium-fueled parties. One night, while stuck indoors due to inclement weather, Byron, out of boredom, proposes a ghost story contest. Mary takes the challenge to heart, realizing the story has always been growing inside her, a piece of her that just needs to be unleashed, and that her task was to find the words to give it life. Over the next several turbulent months, the words of her story come to her almost divinely. She often completely disassociates from reality and, when she comes to, is surrounded by the already written pages of her book.
The story, so ingrained within Mary, begins to manifest as horrible and vivid hallucinations, causing her to question her own reality. It becomes apparent that the inspiration for Frankenstein has been derived from Mary’s own personal traumas, particularly from her relationship with now-husband Percy and the impending birth of their first child.
The filmmakers achieve in making the viewer feel disoriented, mirroring Mary’s state of mind. There are several sudden transitions from steady cam to shaky cam, quick jumps in the palette from cold colors to warm, and many unexpected hallucinations and dream sequences. The viewer’s discomfort grows as we watch the action from voyeuristic camera angles. Each of the leads provides strong performances, especially Alix Wilton Regan’s disciplined portrayal of Mary. Philippe Bowgen’s contrastingly flamboyant Lord Byron is also a standout. Cleverly, there are a few actors who play dual roles, further adding to the disorientation and confusion felt by Mary.
A NIGHTMARE WAKES strives to simultaneously achieve a number of high concept ideas by combining the ideas of the novel to the life of its creator but ultimately fails to sufficiently deliver enough depth. Clocking in at just ninety minutes, the film could have benefited from a little extra time and space to breathe and more fully flesh out ideas. A NIGHTMARE WAKES is an intense slow burn of a film that aims high but misfires as often as it triumphs.
A NIGHTMARE WAKES streams exclusively on Shudder on February 4th in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as via the Shudder offering within the AMC+ bundle where available.