The 400-Word Review: A Nightmare Wakes
By Sean Collier
February 4, 2021
The language used around artistic creations often borrows from pregnancy. It’s not unusual to talk about a creator giving birth to a work or character, lending both a visceral, internal attachment to the process as well as a sense of parentage — that an artistic masterwork is not merely the product, but indeed the offspring, of its maker.
“A Nightmare Wakes” turns that metaphor literal, imagining 19th-century author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as pregnant at the time she wrote the genre-defining novel “Frankenstein.” Weaving in and out of dreams — or visions, or perhaps fiction — “A Nightmare Wakes” turns Shelly’s dark vision for her novel into tangible forces, haunting and tormenting her.
The results are mixed. Admirably, “A Nightmare Wakes” resists the urge to neatly define its scenes as occurring in either reality and fantasy; everything is a bit of both. It uses the language of nightmares, appropriately enough, which can be a compelling and hypnotic filmmaking choice. It also can leave the audience with very little to grab onto.
Fortunately, the film has a star worthy of following. As Shelley, Alix Wilton Regan is sympathetic and headstrong in a sea of unlikable peers. “A Nightmare Wakes” takes some liberties with the timeline of Shelley’s often tragic personal life, but the details are genuine. The teenage Mary Godwin eloped with the writer Percy Bysshe Shelley after her father rejected the pairing; by the time she was 18, she had prematurely given birth to a child who died weeks later, likely while Percy was off having an affair with Mary’s sister-in-law.
Such circumstances inform the chaos in “A Nightmare Wakes,” as Shelley imagines herself in the arms of her character, Victor Frankenstein; both Victor and Percy are played by Giullian Yao Gioiello, who serves well as a dashing cad. (Philippe Bowgen livens things up as fellow writer Lord Byron, at whose home “Frankenstein” was conceived as an entry in a ghost-story competition between the scribes.) While “A Nightmare Wakes” may lag narratively, its mood — placing Shelley somewhere between frustration, creation and sheer madness — is persistent and compelling.
The film’s scares, however, can’t quite keep up, despite a few appropriately jarring images. Writer/director Nora Unkel is more adept at establishing an impressive mood than she is at paying off the setup.
Perhaps that’s appropriate, though. Mary Shelley had a complicated and often tumultuous life; “A Nightmare Wakes” echoes it.
My Rating: 6/10
“A Nightmare Wakes” is streaming on Shudder.