“I am not mad. I chose this.”
A Nightmare Wakes certainly doesn’t feel like your traditional biopic.
The latest Shudder Original film, available to stream now, follows esteemed author Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) as she writers her classic, Frankenstein. Yet at the same time, it’s a lot more than that: it’s a character study, an exploration of patriarchy, an analysis of how far one person will go for their work. And while at times a little bland, A Nightmare Wakes is an illuminating look into one of contemporary horror’s founders.
Unlike most films in this genre, A Nightmare Wakes certainly throws you in the deep end: director Nora Unkel assumes you know the basics of Shelley’s life, and the concept of Frankenstein, and gets things underway from the first frame. While this can work – something like Lords of Chaos does it with aplomb – there isn’t quite enough nuance to the characters to make them immediately relatable. Which isn’t to say it does a bad job of setting up Shelley’s life: there’s a small but fleshed-out cast here, with her laidback, flamboyant friend Byron (Philippe Bowgen) stealing the show at points, but A Nightmare Wakes certainly doesn’t go for a bouncy, light tone. No, it’s a lot darker than that.
Perhaps the shrill strings that permeate the soundtrack will give it away, but this film certainly plays upon the darker elements of Shelley’s personal life and work. It’s not an out-and-out horror – there’s a few scares here and there, and some gruesome imagery – and plays more like a love story and character drama than anything else. It blends these various genres and moods very well: there’s beautiful, rustic manors to fit the period setting, tense, precise camerawork to drum up tension, and dark emotional and psychological turns that make it so character-driven, and while it covers all these areas, it never quite perfects them.
The film’s first half-hour in particular feel a little slow: it barely progresses Frankenstein‘s development, and doesn’t contain much narrative thrust, instead showing us characters without really explaining why we should invest in them. That said, after that it certainly picks up the pace, hitting breakneck speed as Mary’s production of the book seeps into every aspect of her life, from her thought process to how she interacts with others. It’s unclear how much of this is based on real life – this reviewer went into the film with little prior knowledge of Shelley or her work – but it’s a very clever way to weave elements of Frankenstein into the plot, in a manner that feels organic and services the plot. This culminates with an allegory that I won’t spoil here, but feels really satisfying, even when other elements of the plot feel murky.
Yet A Nightmare Wakes is just as much about gender as it is about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. Set in an era where women were certainly subservient, it’s often harrowing to see how much Mary is repressed by her unofficial lover Percy (Giullian Gioiello), to the point where he event stops her from writing her book while pregnant, instead confined solely to bed rest. Unkel pulls absolutely no punches in showing how limiting this time period was for women, but it’s handled in a way that provokes outrage, never done for shock value or controversy: which comes as no surprise, with the film’s production handled by a majority-female crew.
All of this works to place A Nightmare Wakes in a very unique position. It’s a biopic that clearly grasps its subject, but doesn’t quite do enough in the first act to situate audiences into Shelley’s story and world. It’s at times far too vague, not delving enough into interesting aspects, and is at times a little half-baked, lacking the momentum and structure to keep things moving – yet this isn’t always a problem, because the ideas Unkel presents here are certainly interesting enough. It’s one that fans of her and her work will find more enriching, but someone with even a cursory knowledge of Frankenstein will appreciate the clever themes and delicate lead performance.