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Salem Horror Fest ’20 Review: “A NIGHTMARE WAKES” Reincarnates Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

Friday, October 2, 2020 | Review


Starring Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Claire Glassford
Written and Directed by Nora Unkel
Wild Obscura Films

The opening events of A NIGHTMARE WAKES will be familiar to most Gothic lit devotees. Mary Shelley, née Godwin, and her yet-to-be husband Percy Shelley spend the summer of 1816 with poet Lord Byron in villas on the coast of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. With the additional company of both Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont and physician John Polidori, the group of Romantic writers devises a competition to write the best ghost story. While Byron and Percy’s stories never fully come to fruition, Polidori invents the romantic vampire novel with The Vampyre (1819), and Mary Shelley, of course, invents the genre of science-fiction with the publication of Frankenstein (1818).

Salem Horror Fest 2020: 'A Nightmare Wakes' for Mary Shelley | 25YL

Unkel’s film takes this well-known tale and twists it into a horror story that blends the events of Frankenstein with Shelley’s own reproductive trauma. It is an oft-talked about fact, in relation to the thematic matter of Frankenstein, that Shelly suffered five pregnancies resulting in only one surviving child. To write a book, then, where life is created without the need for a woman’s womb, seems tragically fitting. In A NIGHTMARE WAKES, Unkel explores Percy and Mary’s tumultuous relationship and the horrific dreams that inspired Mary’s novel. Through the use of stunning cinematography and incredibly effective horror sequences, the birth of Frankenstein comes alive through the fictionalization of Mary’s literary world merging with her reality. Blood, ink, and tears combine as Mary slips further into the universe she has created, and events from the Shelleys’ real lives are recontextualized to serve Unkel’s vision.

“I feel like Michelangelo, chipping away at a block of marble, revealing the life inside.”

Mary’s muse is corporealized into a supernatural force that compels her to write. The process of authoring Frankenstein becomes as painful and traumatic as the children Mary gives birth to. A NIGHTMARE WAKES creates a dark, Gothic 19th-century atmosphere by utilizing a stripped-down yet well-designed set and score, and plunges viewers deep into Mary’s waking nightmare. As she is further gripped by a writing frenzy, Mary’s once idyllic relationship with Percy crumbles, causing her to fall into the literary arms of her own characters to a sinister end.

A NIGHTMARE WAKES is endlessly refreshing as a horror-infused biopic, depicting the inception of what is perhaps the greatest horror novel ever written. Unkel devotes valuable time to the complexities of Shelley’s relationships, even those she fabricates or alters for the narrative of the film. Other commonly neglected aspects of the story, such as Polidori’s genre contributions or Claire and Byron’s own problematic relationship, are included with care and contribute to the grim portrayal of the events at Lake Geneva.

A Nightmare Wakes - Frontières - Buyers Showcase | Marché du Film 2019 -  Cannes

The world premiere of A NIGHTMARE WAKES can be seen during Weekend I of Salem Horror Fest ’20, October 2-4. Don’t miss this chance to see the life of Mary Shelley converge with the world of her Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Grace Detwiler
Rue Morgue's Online Assistant Editor - Grace Detwiler (@finalgirlgrace) is a freelance film journalist and law student. Her original work can be found on her blog, FinalGirlGrace, as well as in Rue Morgue's print and online publications.