These days, the tale of the conception and writing of Frankenstein during a summer of 1816 in Lake Geneva, Switzerland has become the stuff of legend. A Nightmare Wakes uses this as the foundation for its story, which uses the life of Mary Shelley and scenes from the novel to delve into her growing obsession with the fictional world she’s created. However, the movie, which was written and directed by Nora Unkel, plays fast and loose with the facts and its examination of the creative process falls woefully flat.
The movie begins with a pregnant Mary (Alix Wilton Regan), her lover Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello) and her sister Claire Clairmont (Claire Glassford), arriving at Lord Byron’s (Philippe Bowgen) villa in Lake Geneva. Byron soon proposes the famous ghost story competition that would give rise to Frankenstein, and from there, the movie touches on various parts of Mary’s life story as she continues to write. Early on, she has a miscarriage and the depression and loss caused by that event is used to explain how Mary came up with the basic idea for Frankenstein. But while it’s true that Mary Shelley was pregnant several times and suffered the loss of multiple children throughout her life, the timeline of the movie becomes confusing. Mary quickly becomes pregnant again and is required to go on bed rest well before she’s finished her novel, which causes her, Percy and Claire’s time in Lake Geneva to stretch well beyond a single summer.
This is puzzling enough, but what may be more perplexing for those unfamiliar with Frankenstein is the movie’s sketchy use of scenes and characters from the novel to illustrate Shelley’s writing process and ensuing descent into obsession. There have been movies that have successfully conveyed how a writer has found inspiration in their daily lives, and A Nightmare Wakes seems to be trying to do the same by showing Mary fantasizing about the people in her life as the characters in her book – Percy is imagined as Victor Frankenstein, Claire as Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth and eventually Mary imagines herself as the monster – but the movie never convincingly explains how Mary’s personal life translated into her work.
Instead, the entire movie wallows in a muddled picture of Mary becoming increasingly unhinged as she continues to write. It’s not unusual to tie the creative process to either pregnancy or madness, but here, these tropes don’t seem to have any larger significance, and the lack of clarity just makes them seem lazy and gratuitous. The movie indicts Mary repeatedly for her obsession, showing that her singular focus on Frankenstein causes her to become a neglectful mother and wife, but history doesn’t appear to back up this interpretation, making the story thoroughly unfair to the real Mary Shelley. As a result, although A Nightmare Wakes is a Shudder Original movie, it’s far more frustrating than horrific.
Moreover, the cinematography appears to be going for a gothic style but the picture is often immersed in undifferentiated, inexpressive shadows and the camera work can be overly busy or contrived, making the film look as muddled as the story feels. Meanwhile, the proceedings are punctuated by a distractingly overbearing score that simply increases the eye-roll worthy melodrama.
The basic premise of A Nightmare Wakes is intriguing, but its execution leaves something to be desired. Mary Shelley’s legacy lives on in Frankenstein, but both she and dramatic depictions of the creative process in general, deserve more thoughtful and cogent consideration than this film offers.