Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{Movie Review} A Nightmare Wakes: An Arresting Retelling of the Frankenstein Creation Story

Just in time for Women in Horror Month (Which has now been moved to March but really we should celebrate women in horror every month anyway) comes the Shudder original A Nightmare Wakes about Mary Shelley’s process birthing Frankenstein. Written and directed by Nora Unkel, the film places Shelley’s life and struggles as a writer front and center. A Nightmare Wakes uplifts the godmother of horror and shows how difficult the creative process was for women in the 19th Century.

The story of the novel’s creation is well-known. Poet Lord Byron invited Mary and Percy Shelley to his estate and dared them to write and share a ghost story. They were joined by others, including John Polidori, author of the 1819 novel The Vampyre. This bit of literary history is featured in the film’s first act. Philippe Bowgen does a fine job playing Byron, leaning into his playboy antics. The Gothic tones are reinforced via the fog that creeps across the hillside and rain pounding against Byron’s castle.

This, however, isn’t a film about the men. Mary takes center stage. Frankenstein is a story about birth, creation, and death. So much of the novel was inspired by the author’s personal tragedies and anxieties as a mother. She had a miscarriage and then lost two of her children in their infancy. Her mother, famed feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving childbirth to her.

These anxieties about loss and birth are echoed throughout the film. Mary, played brilliantly by Alix Wilton Regan, has bloody, nightmarish visions of her past miscarriage. When Byron asks her to write a ghost story, she’s haunted by visions of the Monster and his creator, Victor. Lines from the novel are repeated throughout the film as Mary feverishly jots them down.

The film also underscores the challenges women faced as creatives. Most 19th Century female authors published under a male name, for instance. Even Percy, who was an anarchist and feminist, is a layered and complicated character in the film. Played by Giullian Yao Gioiello, he’s initially presented as far less womanizing than Byron. Yet, in one scene, he stumbles into the bedroom after a night of drinking and forces himself upon Mary, despite her resistance.

Further, the film doesn’t avoid the fact that Percy was married when he hooked up and eloped with Mary. Additionally, though he initially praises her before Byron and other friends, in later scenes his support for her writing is tepid at best. When she’s pregnant, he urges her to have bedrest and forgo writing until after she gives birth.

A Nightmare Wakes Review
Courtesy of Shudder

That said, Percy’s politics and support of women’s rights were radical for the time and even by today’s standards. To add, he did write an introduction to Frankenstein upon its publication. Yet, the trappings that women faced during the Victorian era drive the film. Mary wants to finish her novel, pregnancy be damned.

As fantastical as elements of the film are, many scenes are rooted in cold reality. There’s a creeping fear of poverty that plagues Mary, illustrated best during a kitchen table conversation. Percy asks her,

“What happened to the girl I ran away with?” She responds, “She woke up.”

-A Nightmare Wakes

This conversation will resonate with any family struggling to put food on the table. It’s difficult not to chuckle or eye roll at Percy’s wide-eyed idealism when he says at one point that he’ll write a poem to pay for their supper. Yet, he wants her to quit writing to give birth to their child.

If I can find a fault with the film it’s that the nightmares become a little too outlandish in the film’s second half. It’s difficult to tell what Mary’s envisioning and what’s actually occurring. A few of the film’s nightmare sequences are muddied. It’s an opium-fueled fever dream that doesn’t always work on screen.

Overall, A Nightmare Wakes is the perfect film to cue up at the start of Women in Horror Month, but watch it when it comes out. It puts a fresh and unique spin on one of the most famous creation stories in literature. In doing so, it makes the female author the star of the show. The pains of childbirth, poverty, and Mary Shelley’s life are given unique vision in Unkel’s retelling of a classic tale.

A Nightmare Wakes will stream on Shudder starting February 4th.

One thought on “{Movie Review} A Nightmare Wakes: An Arresting Retelling of the Frankenstein Creation Story

Comments are closed.