‘A Nightmare Wakes’ review: Mary Shelley’s life is butchered in a monstrous horror biopic

Good times are few and far between as Lord Byron invites his pals to the literary equivalent of Camp Arawak

Why do filmmakers love making movies about an artist’s creative process? It’s an act of cinematic sadomasochism, attempting to bring to life a story in which, by its very nature, the exciting stuff is happening inside your hero’s head.

Undeterred, first-time director Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes follows Mary Shelley as she is writing her epochal 1818 novel Frankenstein, from its beginnings as a playful challenge issued by party poet Lord Byron to its publication. As stories like this one go, there’s plenty to work with: Mary Shelley was the mistress, then wife, of Percy Shelley, the romantic poet. Their relationship was disapproved of by both families and the couple were beset by challenges during that fertile creative period, including the death of their prematurely born child, the suicide of Shelley’s first wife and Shelley’s persistent philandering.

A Nightmare Wakes
‘A Nightmare Wakes’ tells the story of Mary Shelley as she was writing ‘Frankenstein’. Credit: Shudder

Giullian Yao Gioiello plays both Percy Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, Mary’s fictional scientist, in hallucinatory visions, and as Percy exhibits jealousy and cruelty, we’re forced to consider whether the ‘monster’ he created is Mary’s talent, which threatens to eclipse his own. In that way and so many others – like the magical, metaphorical blood and ink, for example, or Shelley’s butchering of his wife’s manuscripts being presented as physical pain, or her obsession with the creation of life fomenting in grief for her baby – watching A Nightmare Wakes is like marking someone’s English Literature GCSE paper and deciding to award them a generous D.

Yes, the real monster here is the movie itself, a bolted-together mess of dream sequences and reality in which Mary Shelley is rendered not a precocious genius at work but a hapless victim of a bog-standard descent-into-madness plotline. Alix Wilton Regan, who plays her, is more than 10 years older than Mary at the time of writing Frankenstein, which does impact on the dynamic between her and baby-faced Percy.

It’s Regan’s reading of the character that grates, though: in her hands, Mary is devoid of agency and incapable of self-control. She’s either a cold, pissed-off ghoul or she’s gibbering in a heap on the floor. Considering this movie clearly comes from a place of affection for Mary and a willingness to counter sexist narratives claiming Percy wrote much of the book, it all does her a huge and baffling disservice.

With its unchanging setting in a house on the shore of Lake Geneva and minimal leads, A Nightmare Wakes feels like it could be a decent theatre production. But as a movie, with its Brideshead Revisited accents, hammy acting and infuriating flights of fancy taking what little plot exists down endless blind alleys, it’s a dud not even a 240 volt lightning blast could revive. It serves neither a horror audience, not a corset-buster audience, nor even the people in the middle of that weird venn diagram. At least Bridgerton is amusingly shit.

Details

  • Director: Nora Unkel
  • Starring: Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Claire Glassford, Philippe Bowgen
  • Release date: February 4 (Shudder)
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