Film Review: A Nightmare Wakes

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Heralded as a classic novel upon its release over two centuries ago, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus not only unleashed the notorious Frankenstein’s Monster onto the world, but introduced author and fellow Brit Mary Shelley to generations of readers.

As her creation has terrorized fans through numerous books, musical, and film adaptations in subsequent years, Shelley has also become the subject of public fascination herself, specifically the period of her life writing the novel which was all-but-simple for her.

Film poster for A Nightmare Wakes

In Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes this harrowing account is brought to life as the film deep dives into the darkest recesses of Shelley’s (Alix Wilton Regan) unravelling mind during the genesis of her landmark novel. Loosely biographical and psychologically tantalizing, The Logical Pictures product follows Shelley’s fateful visit to the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland as she is joined by her lover, and soon-to-be father of her child, Percy (Giullian Yao Gioiello).

Joining the couple for the summer are Shelley’s sister, Claire (Claire Glassford), writer and physician John Polidori (Lee Garrett), and famed poet and 19th-century Rockstar Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen) who issues a challenge to see who can pen the best ghost story. What begins as a simple distraction from the rain manifests into Shelley’s obsessive resolve to compose the most terrifying story possible, even if it costs her everything.

Vivid hallucinations and disturbing ghostly figures begin to materialize as Shelley soon finds the line between reality and fantasy blurred. With each inscribed page arises yet another sinister vision to torment her in a host of ways. As Shelley battles mental demons it isn’t long before her inner turmoil inevitably affects her relationships with Percy and Claire, who begin to distance themselves. Could the potential rewards outweigh the insurmountable costs?

Still from A Nightmare Wakes

Although ambitious in its fresh perspective, A Nightmare Wakes ultimately misses the mark in its attempt to properly capture the viscerally chaotic process of writing one of horror’s darkest and aberrant novels.

The film’s sombre, singular tone vies to depict the solemnity of Shelley’s plight, but in doing so creates a stagnant narrative. The apparitions and undead children begin as chilling premonitions of what’s to come before ultimately losing all efficacy as a result of overexposure.

Coupled with the film’s troubled tone are the seemingly reserved performances from Regan and Gioiello as the Shelleys. Again, while the film’s objective aimed to depict a morose, sullen atmosphere, it adversely hinders the performances of the pair. While the film’s denouement did deliver a decently moving exchange between the tumultuous on-screen couple, this lone scene is simply not enough to account for the static energy between the two.

Still from A Nightmare Wakes

Despite missed opportunities, A Nightmare Wakes delivers a visually stunning portrait of life in the dreary 19th Swiss countryside. The natural evergreen aesthetic, juxtaposed with the incessant tints of grey and black, convey a brooding ambiance in an otherwise jovial world. The indoor shots find a perfect balance of light and dark, showcasing the beauty of the aristocratic estate in the day and create the perfect nightmare atmosphere at night. Overall, the technical aspects of the film are tight and serve as a high point for the film.

A Nightmare Wakes is far from the perfect creation. It may not be pretty, or a meticulously crafted piece of British filmmaking, but it is not a lost cause by any means. While it may not strike the fancy of casual or even ardent horror fans, it will definitely pique the interest of die-hard Frankenstein fans. At the end of the day, A Nightmare Wakes infuses life into the growing legacy of the author who is still celebrated two centuries later, Mary Shelley.

By: Andre Leon

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