Film, Film Review

SALEM HORROR REVIEW: A Nightmare Wakes (2020) dir. Nora Unkel

World premiere via the Salem Horror Fest


Frankenstein is the name of the monster.

It’s the monster haunting young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Shelley) in A Nightmare Wakes, the new quasi-biopic from director Nora Unkel. The film opens with perhaps the most famous event in Mary’s life: the retreat at Lake Geneva with her husband-to-be, Percy Shelley, his best friend, Lord Byron, and his friend and hanger-on, Dr. John Polidori. On a particularly stormy night, Byron suggests that each of them submit their own scary story to tell in the dark. The rest, of course, is history: the contributions of the two great men of letters are largely forgotten; Polidori outshines them both with what is widely considered to be the first modern vampire story; and young Mary blows them all out of the water with a little tale about a mad scientist named Dr. Frankenstein. This, however, is the simplified version, streamlined for easy campfire telling. Obviously, Mary Shelley did not retire to her chambers and hammer out an entire 300-page novel; rather, the evening served as the beginning of a lengthy writing process, culminating in the ghoulish novel we know and love today. But what is it like to have a story like that bubbling inside you for so long– especially for a woman, and especially a woman in a complicated relationship with a celebrated author?

The neatest trick A Nightmare Wakes pulls is in visualizing the struggles of bringing a vision to the page. Films about writers can be difficult to pull off because, as fascinating as the writer may be, writing itself is not a very cinematic act. Unkel pulls this off by visualizing the creative process in a number of different ways: first by dramatizing the nightmare which, according to legend, planted the idea in Mary’s head; then through a series of visions in which the blood from her ill-fated pregnancy; and, finally, through a parallel storyline in which Mary watches the events of Frankenstein unfold, with Percy in the place of the good doctor, Mary’s sister Claire as his beloved Elizabeth, and, naturally, Mary herself as the monster. At first, the lines are clearly delineated, but soon we’re just as lost as Mary as to whether what we’re seeing is reality, the novel, or something in between.

There have been, of course, many films over the years about the horrors of writer’s block, from The Shining to Barton Fink to this year’s Shirley (the latter of which would make for an interesting double feature with A Nightmare Wakes), but few about the ravages of a creative hot streak. When Mary gets it into her head to set her story on paper, she is a woman possessed– at times seemingly literally. Her relationships with her husband, her sister, and her infant deteriorate; conversely, she becomes closer and closer to her fictional mad scientist. She knows, as we do, that she’s doing what she should be doing, but to those around her, she is the monster.

Just as Shirley is far from a “biopic” of Shirley Jackson, A Nightmare Wakes is in no way the “definitive” account of Shelley’s life or the writing of her most famous work. Rather, it’s an expressionist melding of Shelley’s biography and the themes and plot beats of Frankenstein, which essentially meld into a third, original narrative. To this extent, it reminds me somewhat of another not-quite-biopic/not-quite-adaptation: David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Like Peter Weller’s William S. Burroughs, Alix Wilton Regan isn’t quite playing Mary Shelley so much as the idea of Mary Shelley, shaped through generations discovering her work and remarkable life. She’s the Mary Shelley we imagine when we think about Mary Shelley, which is ultimately more satisfying than any glossy Oscar-bait performance.

Like many low-budget period pieces, A Nightmare Wakes occasionally runs up against the limits of its means, and some elements can’t help but feel slightly anachronistic (with his unbuttoned shirt and unkempt hair, Philippe Bowgen’s Lord Byron feels more like a stage actor playing Withnail than a 19th-century poet). But it’s a smart, haunting little film, a gothic fantasia about the grandmother of all gothic horrors. Depending on your disposition, it may either inspire you to write your masterpiece, or scare you off the prospect all together. Unlike so many films about historical figures, it’s alive.

A Nightmare Wakes
dir. Nora Unkel
90 min.

World premiere via the Salem Horror Festclick here for pass info!

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