Director: Nora Unkel
Notable Cast: Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Gioiello, Claire Glassford, Philippe Bowgen, Lee Garrett
While film and television adaptions of Frankenstein continually find their way to release every year, there is also a quite common trend in trying to adapt the life of Mary Shelley into the film landscape. At this point I must have seen half a dozen films that are inspired or directly attempt this approach and the latest, coming straight through your internet via Shudder, is A Nightmare Wakes. The life of Shelley and the writing of her iconic novel makes for a fascinating story in their own right, but there are only so many times one can see a ‘new angle’ on the material before it grows stale – just as the various versions of Frankenstein can cover enough ground. With A Nightmare Wakes, director Nora Unkel attempts to craft a psychological thriller around Shelley’s life during the writing of her novel.
Subtle and atmospheric are two traits to truly sell a concept such as this to a hungry horror audience looking for the next artsy scare to leap behind and, on paper, A Nightmare Wakes is certainly just that. It’s a film that thrusts itself squarely into this arena with its slow burn, loose narrative, character-driven plot, and subtle horror elements. To its benefit, there are some solid performances to partner with its intentions of delivering a ‘character study’ on the descent into horror by Shelley and when the film starts to really engage with blurring the lines between reality and the horrors of Shelley’s mind one can easily see why this film would work.
A Nightmare Wakes would work too for all of those reasons if it wasn’t such a groggy and flat film. While the atmospheric tone and character-driven narrative fit into the current horror landscape, the film ultimately lacks the sense of urgency to deliver on the themes of its story, but also the scares on hand as the dark fantasy creeps into Shelley’s real world. There are a handful of images that haunt, particularly that opening shot and how long it holds. However, even when the ideas are sound and solid, the film tends to play light with them. The blending of Percy Shelley and her character of Frankenstein? Fascinating and hardly utilized to the maximum effect it might have had.
For those horror fans looking for something perhaps a bit more subtle and dramatic, A Nightmare Wakes does offer that. The character-driven plot and many of the ideas work on a foundational level. It’s a shame that the resulting film tends to drag on at a sloth’s pace and underdelivers on many of its bright and horrific promises. Considering there are now so many Mary Shelley films that exist, A Nightmare Wakes needed to lean further into its strengths to deliver on its unique angle.