In 1818, Mary Shelley birthed a monster. A monster who thus created the entire science fiction genre. A monster that would go onto spawn countless stage productions, film adaptations, and television series. A monster that spiralled into debate and religious interpretation, as countless scholars and fans attempted to dissect this beast of a novel.
A monster who, in his own story, crafted a monster of his own.
Frankenstein continues to be one of the most brilliant tales of all time, telling the story of maddening doctor who creates life from old body parts and such. As much as Mary Shelley’s work has been told and retold, as has the tale of how she came to write it in the infamous Villa Diodati.
Director and write Nora Unkel brings the creation of Frankenstein once more whilst, at the same time, tackling Shelley’s own monstrous undoing with grief.
Starring Alix Wilton Regan, A Nightmare Wakes revolves around Mary Shelley’s arrive at the Villa Diodati with her younger stepsister Claire and her lover, soon-to-be married, Percy. Staying at the Villa is the rapturous and rampant Lord Byron and Doctor Poladari. One night, Byron asks each of the guests to create a ghost story which plants a small seed in Mary’s mind. Tragically, Mary loses her child
I’ll have to admit, upon first watch of A Nightmare Wakes, I did not take kindly to it. There was something so erratic about its nature, reducing an acclaimed literary figure to a baby producing machine at the whim of the pompous (and sometimes overly acted) men around her. It seemed reductive, adding sexual assault sequences that reduced our heroine to a screaming, crying, mess.
Yet sequences and the story stuck in my mind. After a re-watch, and conversations, it is easy to see where and why Unkel crafted the story in the manner she did, albeit haphazardly. This is film that solely focuses on Mary and her strife-filled relationship with Percy. Though there were fiery lovers, and Mary adored him until he died, she was stricken by miscarriages and affairs. Through nightmares and sadness, she turned to the page to write something shocking, sinister, and stupendous.
Alix Wilton Regan is terrific as Mary, breathlessly flitting through the pages of her character. Grief, strength, creativity, fiction, motherhood, loss, and depression are sewn together to build this woman who can take no more and will power forward in her own manner instead. Giullan Yao Gioiello as Percy makes a great sparring partner but this is Regan’s film and she shows immense skill in entrapping the fantastical and the real horrors of Mary’s world.
Even with a second look, there are still flaws. The script could strip back much of the fantastical elements that imply Mary wrote Frankenstein without autonomy, succumbing to the black ink that bleeds out of her. Whilst her visions with Victor Frankenstein are some of the best scenes in the film, particularly as Gioiello brilliantly plays him also, grounded the film in more realism (and less bleak cinematography,) would have worked best.
However, Unkel does show promise with her story-telling and framing. A rape sequence is shot in one take which allows us to solely on the victim. It is harrowing but it gives no agency to the attacker. The horror, terrifying at times, is tinged with the melancholic strife of Mary’s undoing. But also it is masterfully imbued with the sexual politics of the Regency era. Mary is constantly giving to Percy until she is bedbound and spent. Percy, a prophet of free love, begrudgingly gives her morsels of affection.
In the end, Mary makes a monster, not only of him, but of herself too.
A Nightmare Wakes is out on Shudder now.
Listen to our interview with Alix Wilton Regan over on Soundcloud