Writers and filmmakers love to latch onto Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s love story like it’s the ultimate tragic romance. A forbidden love between a 16-year-old and a married 21-year-old (which may or may not have been consummated in a graveyard) seems to make good film material. The thing is that Mary Shelley was exponentially more interesting than the media has given her credit for, and it’s a shame so many fail to grasp her legacy.
Unfortunately, Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes is no exception. A Nightmare Wakes focuses on that famous summer in 1816 where Mary (Alix Wilton Regan) first conceived her magnum opus, Frankenstein. She’s vacationing with her lover, Percy (Giullian Yao Gioiello), her stepsister, Claire (Claire Glassford), the promiscuous poet, Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen), and Dr. John Polidori (Lee Garrett). After being tasked with coming up with a ghost story, Mary starts to plant the roots of her famous novel, which mainly stems from nightmarish visions and trauma from a recent miscarriage.
Unkel’s intentions are good, but the execution is borderline insulting to Shelley’s legacy. The themes of sexism, jealousy, and sexuality run rampant but not in a way that benefits Shelley’s character. Her obsession with Victor Frankenstein (“her creation” if you like) threatens her relationship with her sister and Percy, who both seem to write her off as manic-depressive. Having Shelly’s genius lead to insanity does nothing except signify that women shouldn’t be left to their devices, or they will inevitably bring their downfall.
Primarily marketed as a horror film, Unkel’s film cannot decide what it wants to be. It tries to balance period drama, horror, and psychological thriller without really succeeding in either genre. It’s a shame because there is a story here, but the film tries to tackle so many ideas and loses its purpose.
Despite being set in the 19th century, A Nightmare Wakes feels very inauthentic to the time. The production design was limited to mainly two houses—both of which could have been from any time period. The actors feel like they were in a CW rendition of the film and don’t bring any life to the rambunctious literary figures they were supposed to portray.
It’s hard to determine who precisely A Nightmare Wakes is for; It’s not for horror aficionados or Mary Shelley scholars, nor is it particularly for fans of period dramas. With a lifeless cast and an even more lifeless script, A Nightmare Wakes is a bad dream you’ll wish to wake up from.