“I see them still: The very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else.” — Mary Shelley, 1831

What comes to mind when you think of horror cinema? Is it a racing collection of your favorite films? Is it a blood-splattered gorefest? The more clean-up, the better. Maybe it’s the genre’s prodigal sons MichaelFreddy, and Jason. I’d imagine everyone sees something different when they think of the horror genre given we all come from different places, backgrounds, ideals, and access. In my case, one particular image comes to mind when I think of the horror genre, and I’d imagine I’m not alone in having the same vision of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has faced adaptation for the stage and screen since its publishing in 1818. Mary Shelley’s own story as a writer has been used as far back as Elsa Lanchester’s portrayal in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). But, A Nightmare Wakes (2019), written and directed by Nora Unkel, is one of the most tortured portrayals of Mary to bless the silver screen—or in the time of COVID, the “pixeled” screen. For those that do not know the origin story of Mary writing Frankenstein, I will sum it up the best I can. In 1816, Mary and her lover Percy Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont went to spend the summer with Lord Byron and his doctor John Polidori in Geneva. One evening Lord Byron came up with the idea to have a writing competition—each would write their own ghost story. Mary’s just so happened to be Frankenstein.

“Dreamt that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about that little thing all day. Not in good spirits.”

Mary Shelley, 1815

This is the setting of A Nightmare Wakes. A tortured Mary (Alix Wilton Regan), mourning the miscarriage of her and Percy’s (Giullian Yao Gioiello) unborn child, struggles to take care of her newborn son, and is haunted by the nightmares of her own reality. Her masterpiece’s tragic inspiration, where the only release from the darkness is to keep writing it down. A non-absent lover in the form of Victor Frankenstein and the power to bring back life from death keeps her pen to the page. Dreams of ink bleeding from her womb and the paranoia of betrayal and abandonment contribute to her reality slowly slipping from her fingers.

Alix Wilton Regan’s performance as Mary is tragically beautiful. She not only manages to bring to life the inner struggle of Mary Shelley’s complex and mostly tragic life, but she also manages to, unfortunately, represent the modern female experience. Miscarriages are a reality. Postpartum depression is a reality that is still misunderstood today. Women face abusive partners, rape, and fill the role of the single parent and breadwinner. As we all know, cinema can act as a pretty accurate reflection of the period the film was created.

Nora Unkel has added a powerful addition to the legacy of Mary Shelley, and it’s a damn good feature film debut. None of the character performances slipped over the edge into overdone; even Philippe Bowgen’s highly theatrical performance of Lord Byron fits the icon of debauchery like a glove. A Nightmare Wakes delivers a period piece as good as Jennifer Kent’s sophomore feature Nightingale (2018), although the latter could’ve shaved 20-30 minutes to its benefit, and represents contemporary mental health issues in a way similar to Natalie Erika James’ feature film debut Relic (2020).

A Nightmare Wakes is a story about abuse, postpartum depression, and the tortured marriage creatives have with their art. For those in love with the story of Frankenstein, without a doubt, you will enjoy this movie. For those new to Mary Shelley’s nightmare, I dare you to step into the darkness.

Salem Horror Fest is happening right now! Get your tickets here. I highly recommend watching A Nightmare Wakes and then afterward check out Jude Wright’s lecture Hideous Progenitor: Mary Shelley in Adaptations of Frankenstein.

“Step into the darkness in ‘A Nightmare Wakes’ at Salem Horror Fest 2020” – The Horrorculturist