The story behind the creation of Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece ‘Frankenstein’ is one that has itself fallen into the territory of an oft-repeated myth. One summer in 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percey Bysshe Shelley were staying in Lake Geneva along with Lord Byron, his doctor John Polidori and Mary’s step-sister Clare Clairmont. Over three fateful days when bad weather confined them indoors, Byron challenged them to each write a ghost story, and subsequently, both the first modern vampire story and the first science fiction story were born. It’s a tale that has been immortalised on film many times, but none quite to the effect that writer and director Nora Unkel achieves with A Nightmare Wakes.
The clearly well-researched and empathetically handled biographical details are, from the start, entwined indecipherably with gothic and horror elements that create an insular and fantastical portrayal of Mary Shelley’s mind during these chaotic few weeks in Switzerland. And the focus on Mary is paramount to understanding her mental state and the film’s scenes of horror, which is led by an incredible performance by Alix Wilton Regan as a sometimes hopeful and passionate but largely weary and troubled Mary. Regan and Unkel create a portrait of a woman that draws you into her deepest thoughts and fears, however the characterisations of the others, particularly Lord Byron, do sometimes feel stereotypical and lazy. He’s a slightly exaggerated and two-dimensional version of exactly what we would expect of Byron but Unkel does seem to get away with this as it works well to centre Mary. The same goes for the intoxicating score and soundscape which is important from the beginning as a window into Mary’s mind— both waking and dreaming. The voices, breathing and violin screeches, although frequently over-utilised in horror, give the film a progressively claustrophobic quality that draws you into Mary’s headspace; and juxtaposed with some climactic and stirring orchestral pieces, it creates a sincerely interesting soundscape.
Unkel embraces both psychological and body horror elements to tell this story which is a fascinating mix, particularly in a film so empathetic to its female lead. In the film, the female body, and particularly the pregnant body, is a source of horror and fear but with the focus on Mary’s psychology and the audience’s close placement to her, that fear is from an active female perspective. Usually in body horrors, particularly by male directors and writers, the source of horror is the abject female body; it’s difference and either it’s perceived threat or perceived weakness. But with this film, the question is ‘What is this body capable of?’ and the site of horror is creative rather than destructive. The elements of psychological and body horror also work in tandem, making the sight of horror both internal and external, showing that there’s no escape for Mary, and extension the audience. But it also works to highlight the blurred lines that power the film; we’re never sure what’s internal or external, what’s a dream or reality.
This is most clear in the film’s fractured and uneven structure. Most scenes are quite short and feel like vignettes that, put together, create a linear patchwork that make the viewer on edge and never truly comfortable in this world. The consistently shorter scenes also make a quite prolonged rape scene, with no camera movement and minimal sound, even more horrifying. The power of Mary’s imagination fuels the films and the structure reflects this and the fragmented nature of her mind. The visceral and hazy dream sequences feature compelling imagery that, though not groundbreaking, is interesting in this context and gives the film a gothic horror edge enhanced by the intertwining of Mary Shelley’s biographical details with the narrative of Frankenstein. These haunting dream scenes that propel the film are that way because of how close the audience is to Mary, and the horror of this psychological and insular film is made possible by understanding this woman deeply, which filmmaker Nora Unkel clearly does.
A Nightmare Wakes is available to stream on Shudder from February 4th
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here