Mary Shelley’s life and the events that spawned her most beloved work are anything but ordinary...
...We’ve all read about that famous gathering of the minds and the fateful challenge that led each member—the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and Polidori chief among them—to formulate their own scary stories to tell on dark and stormy nights. Occasionally this party is even used for the frame story surrounding Frankenstein film adaptations. Never before, though, have I seen it told in such an innovative and starkly beautiful way as in writer/director Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes, currently making its World Premiere at the 2020 Salem Horror Fest.
From its opening moments we know we are in for a visually sumptuous experience thanks to stunning cinematography by Oren Soffer, and it only gets more gorgeous and unsettling the further into the story we go. Combine such visuals with a sweeping score by Jon Cziner and powerhouse cast performances and it’s clear A Nightmare Wakes is out to offer us a wholly original and deeply involving and personal story of not just the creation of one of horror’s seminal works of literature, but the strife-filled life of the woman from whence it grew. Alix Wilton Regan blows her performance as Mary Shelley out of the water, expertly capturing the emotional turmoil that surely plagued Mary in real life and laying it all on the screen for us to witness in all its horrible glory, like sharp and shining tools in a doom-shadowed laboratory.
One of the most breathtaking things I noticed and loved so much about Wakes was the persistence of certain visual elements which are all intimately connected not just to the story on screen, but to Shelley’s actual life: water, blood, and ink. Choosing one as most important is impossible given how intricately they all relate to one another for her and for the story of Frankenstein; each provides and/or removes a certain kind of life, depending on how they’re used. Though water is most closely tied to death and strife within the context of the film, blood and ink become the two most vital soldiers for life, eventually to the point of being borderline indistinguishable from one another for Mary herself. Spilled blood and spilled ink happen so frequently near to each other that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish—even early on—what’s happening in the real world and what is only in Mary’s incredibly vivid dream world.
Far from being a detracting factor, this uneven keel we stand on pulls us closer to Mary’s point of view and thus deeper into the story, even when it’s not always clear exactly how much time has passed between events. The more entwined Mary becomes in her own nightmares and characters the more unsettled we feel. The origin tale most Frankenstein readers know tells of one isolated dream of Mary’s which led to the creation of the Creature and the birth of one of literature’s most horrifying and empathic offerings, but in A Nightmare Wakes, the nightmare goes beyond taking one simple, startling form and instead follows Mary into her waking life. Never mind that Percy and Victor look the same in her mind, she has created someone so alluring even she cannot resist their pull.
Speaking of appearances, the second element I most appreciated about the film, as a lover of the novel, was the look of the Creature Mary sees while she’s imagining and battling the all-consuming nature of her story. First and foremost, the Creature’s sickly skin tone and lanky hair are exactly as I imagine them to be when reading the novel, so immeasurable kudos to the makeup team of Mickayla Pence, Suzzy Kotoku, and Bella Armenti for that. Secondly, the Creature is depicted not as some ominous male figure crashing onto the scene and looming over her, but as a darker, wilder version of Mary herself. Though never shown for long, the connection and connotation are clear: Mary’s unwavering and rapid descent into Frankenstein’s story leaves her no room to position herself as anything other than the monster, desperate for affection but profoundly isolated.
Beyond, yet entwined with Mary’s battle to get her story out into the world, A Nightmare Wakes depicts the tensions of her life—personally and creatively—with Percy. Their relationship is passionate and tumultuous, always with love at its core, though I imagine being unquestionably and persistently overshadowed by his wife certainly put a strain on it. “Has the great Percy Shelley finally found some competition?” she snaps at him in one particularly heated moment when he’s trying to get her to stop writing and mentally rejoin reality. I loved watching the tensions of their relationship play out, not least because it isn’t an element that’s frequently explored despite being rather impactful for both.
Honestly, much as with the novel, I could go on and on into the night about the intricacies and heart-achingly striking moments in this film I haven’t even touched on, but perhaps it’s best to save that for a later time. Suffice it to say, the love Nora Unkel and company have for Shelley as a complex and utterly human figure shines through every moment of this film. I genuinely believe any fan of hers or Frankenstein’s will find a rich experience to be had in A Nightmare Wakes. This is one festival haunting you won’t want to miss.
By Katelyn Nelson
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