A Nightmare Wakes lays bare how traumatic experiences can manifest as a hallucinatory blurring of the veil between reality and the demons that can haunt you.
When it comes to the classic, nerve-wrecking, sleep-haunting, bone-chilling horror stories, none have received a bigger cult following than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. As with all dark and twisted tales, the birth of said novel comes with an interesting account of its conception and is the immensely dark cathartic recital of a morally dubious author. Mary Shelley mesmerized Europe in the 1800s in ways never before thought possible and is essentially the creator of the science fiction genre. As a literature graduate, I can write (and boy, have I) endless essays on Frankenstein as to the relevance of Mary Shelley as the mother of Frankenstein’s monster, Dr. Frankenstein’s role as a ‘father’, resurrection of dead life (and the loss of life in the first place), nature-nurture, and the impact of being a childless mother.
What most essays fail to focus on, however, is Mary Shelley herself. Daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the philosopher William Goodwin, Shelley led a life filled with free love, passion, drugs and freedom alongside some of the most celebrated artists of her day. Lacking any care from psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, penning down the horrific tale that is “Frankenstein” was the only relief she could find for the nightmarish fuel of certain circumstances in her life. Spurred on by the grief and trauma of having five miscarriages and a straying lover who feels to fully see the impact this has on her, Shelley falls deeper and deeper into a darkness so horrifying it oozes with rotten revived flesh, the birth of her abominable child. Nora Unkel’s debut feature A Nightmare Wakes follows Mary Shelley down into that abyss and recontextualizes her monstruous resurrection.
The film’s beginning sets the tone for the rest to come, a heavily pregnant woman walks slowly into a large body of water, drowning both herself and her unborn child. The duality of that image, which, you will come to learn, can signify an actual event and at the same time can symbolically signify both Mary Shelley’s (Alix Wilton Regan, The Wife, Assassin’s Creed: Origins) drowning descent into the darkness and her miscarriages. The following 91 minutes centre around the infamous weekend at Lord Byron’s (Philippe Bowgen, The Mick, Supernatural) where the idea of Frankenstein is rumoured to have first come to Mary Shelley’s mind; her miscarriage, a very awkward non-consensual sex scene (thank god Percy Shelley (Giullian Gioiello, Iron Fist, The Carrie Diaries) only lasts a bit under a minute) and subsequent pregnancy; and Mary Shelley’s growing psychotic tendencies blurring the line between her fiction and her reality. Foreshadowed by an ominous Philippe Bowgen as Lord Byron who recounts, “darkness doesn’t need our help… only our scribbling.”
A real period-piece, A Nightmare Wakes’ power lies in the beautiful cinematography (Oren Soffer, See You Soon, Little Miss Perfect) and imagery. A dull and cold colour palette that is somehow distinctly recognisable as 19th century scenery, manages to make the pure white innocence of Mary Shelley (who is often seen in white dress) turn all the darker by her meddling in interchangeable blood and ink. The film is permeated by that sort of electric undercurrent when the autumn sky is charged by an impending storm, the buzzing and crackling can almost be visually discerned – when the (already blurry) line between Shelley’s real world and her nightmarish traumatic world are smoothly colliding. Psychotic hallucinations of exuding ink are quite literally oozing through the cracks of her (constructed?) world. Ironically, when she first pitches the idea to Lord Byron, Shelley guesses herself what her future will look like as she says – “Gosh, I sound mad, don’t I?” Yes you do Mary, yes you do.
As multi-layered the book itself is, A Nightmare Wakes possibly even has more layers. Water, pure white gowns, ink and blood all seem to have a bigger symbolic significance. When the blood and the ink start to be interchanged, you know Mary Shelley is having a very hard time discerning her hallucinations with reality. The recurring ink spilled on her hands gave me the impression of her having blood on her hands. Though popular claims Mary Shelley was a loving and devoted mother, in A Nightmare Wakes there is certainly not a grain of devotion to her child to be found. To the opposite, in a harrowing finale she mistakes her son who died for having successfully been calmed by her motherly actions – “He sleeps. He was crying, but.. now he sleeps” she says eerily peacefully. Besides from giving me the creeps, it certainly looks a lot like the portrayal of both pre- and post-natal depression.
Though I won’t give away a major spoiler, the biggest twist of events (and the only one at that) in A Nightmare Wakes is also the most disconcerting one – it lifts the film from being a science fictionized biopic into a psychoanalytical analysis of a woman who in the end had very simple requests: to be loved and to be a mother. As to the spoiler, I will let you do the math and only say that the monster goes through a bit of an identity- (and gender) reversal. When it comes to the portrayal of the intimate relationships of Mary Shelley, A Nightmare Wakes does an excellent job at subtly dissecting the intricate family tree. As Dr. Frankenstein in her hallucinatory world portrayed by Percy Shelley, and her stepsister Claire (Claire Glassford, Collateral Beauty, Limitless) as his doting Elizabeth – you might know what I’m getting at, Percy Shelley and her stepsister Claire had an actual affair in real life (even having one child together). If you love Frankenstein, but also love all things Mary Shelley – certainly do not let this gem of a film pass you by (even if it is just for the intrigues)!
A Nightmare Wakes is now available to watch on Shudder.