Written by: Matt Patti | February 4th, 2021
A Nightmare Wakes (Nora Unkel, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
It seems the legendary novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is still an inspiration to many today. The property has produced numerous retellings, alternate versions of the featured monster, and even has had an effect on our language, as many use the name of the novel and doctor alike as a metaphor for something that is unusual, freaky, shoddily pieced together, etc. After so many spin-offs that keep getting more and more outlandish and further and further from the source material (I’m looking at you, I, Frankenstein), audiences have begun to grow exhausted from the repetition. However, lately there has been a push to bring audiences back to the source material and focus on Mary Shelley, the author herself. Such is the case with director Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes, in which Shelley’s life and fiction collide in an ode to the novel that also captures Unkel’s own unique fictional vision. However, much like Dr. Frankenstein himself, Unkel unfortunately ends up creating an out-of-control monster in her attempted tribute to Shelley’s work.
The film starts with Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan, The Adventures of Anais Nin) as a young adult and her then-lover Percy Bysshe Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello, The Cat and the Moon) attending a dinner party with friends. It is there that they, along with the rest of the guests, are challenged to write the scariest story they can to frighten the host. The guests jump at the opportunity, especially Shelley. They share in-progress ideas amongst each other the next day, and, though deemed not very scary yet, the friends all agree they like Mary’s idea the best. However, as Mary continues to write her story, the events that she writes on paper, and some of the characters, begin to come to life. All the while, Mary begins to have eerie, unsettling visions and hallucinations. She soon discovers that her writing is influencing her real-life. Now, Mary must decide whether to continue writing the novel and put her and Percy’s relationship at risk, or stop in the middle of her masterpiece.
A Nightmare Wakes succeeds at depicting the early 1800s time period in which Shelley lived. The filmmakers nail down even the smallest details of the era, including the interior design of houses, the flickering of candlelight at night, an impressive wardrobe selection, and subtle nuances of people’s behaviors and thoughts at the time. The film also features a very immersive bland, gray color palette that flows with the old-time feel and adds to the audience’s feeling of dread. The sound design is also appropriate, especially the score. Reminiscent of the times but also inspiring a modern disturbing feeling, the music fits perfectly within the film. The technical aspects of A Nightmare Wakes are all done very well. However, the writing and the film’s plot do not live up to its terrific technical elements.
The plot is, unfortunately, as I expected it to be: an uneven, perplexing conundrum. The characters of Mary and Percy are compelling and the dynamic of their relationship dynamic is a different one than what we see in most films these days. Also, Mary’s motivations are intriguing to behold and make sense for her character. Besides those aspects, though, the rest of the plot consists of a series of visions and hallucinations that the viewer struggles to separate from the actual events taking place. This problem is exacerbated by the film’s reliance and focus on Shelley’s actual novel. As someone who read Frankenstein back in grade school but doesn’t quite remember all the details, the film frustrates me. A mere dilletante when it comes to Shelley’s book, I found myself spending too much time attempting to discern what characters/events in the film resembled which ones from the book, and found it to be a nearly impossible task. I believe that in order to truly understand this film, or at least enjoy it objectively, one must either be a superfan of Shelley’s work or have no knowledge of it at all, respectively. I would almost argue that A Nightmare Wakes would be better off with no connection to Frankenstein, as it doesn’t really need it and the fact that it is connected just makes the plot more convoluted.
I do believe that A Nightmare Wakes is worth giving a chance if one falls into either of the two aforementioned camps. Or, if nothing else, for its exceptional, accurate period-piece details. The film does also offer some solid bits of suspense and a somewhat tragic tale by the end, once you piece everything together. However, it is quite frustrating to get there. Shelley enthusiasts would likely enjoy the interpretation of Frankenstein contained in this film. However, for the majority of people who are laymen, in terms of the material, but still know the basics of the story, the film falls a bit flat. There are many positive nuggets sprinkled throughout, but overall I think general audiences will leave the film unsatisfied and slightly bewildered with both the film and Shelley’s novel.