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Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Review: A Nightmare Wakes

Director: Nora Unkel

Screenplay: Nora Unkel

Year: 2021

Frankenstein is one of the most influential novels in the horror genre and helped to pave the way for 20th-century horror. Many know the name of the author that gave birth to the story and its mythical creature, but few know the details of her life. “A Nightmare Wakes”, a Shudder exclusive, explores the events that inspired the author to write such important work.

Half biography, half fiction, “A Nightmare Wakes” looks into the novel Frankenstein from the writer’s point of view. Mary goes to spend some time with her partner Percy, where both participate in a dinner where a challenge to create a ghost story is made. As Mary works in her novel, her mental health starts deteriorating because of her relationship instability, and her novel’s events start mixing with those of her real life.

The fateful night of the summer of 1816 is the catalyst that propelled two renowned works in the horror genre: The Vampyre from Willian Polidori, an important influence for the classic Bram Stoker’s Dracula that opened the gates for the whole vampires’ subgenre, and Frankenstein. The dinner also serves to put into motion the movie’s plot that focuses on Mary and Percy’s relationship and Mary’s relationship with her novel. The director Nora Unkel in her first full-length feature prefers an artistic slow-burn style that is useful for elevating the period and location visuals but doesn’t do many favors to the narration.

Up to when the dinner takes place, we already get a few strokes of the stormy relationship between Mary and Percy, where a spontaneous abortion that takes Mary to question her potential to be a mother, and the suicide of a pregnant woman we later discover is Percy’s wife, as they have an affair relationship, already top the list. Mary’s obsession with her novel figures as a way for her to escape her reality, increasingly harder to tolerate because of her husband’s jealousy by feeling surpassed as a writer and the growing lack of trust from Mary as a response to his dandy behavior. 

As appealing as what the stormy love story of one of the most important writers in horror might seem, that the movie is based almost entirely on this aspect of her life is just too much. Of course, many of the most challenging moments in her life, as her struggles with motherhood, and her relationship with Percy, are used to draw parallels with the creature from her novel, but still, it feels like a drama instead of a thriller or horror movie. The acting of Alix Wilton Regan (“The Isle”) and Giullian Yao Gioiello (“Scream: The TV Series”) help to alleviate some of the slowest stretches, but they encourage that soap opera feel instead of pushing towards horror.

“A Nightmare Wakes” seeks to go into writer Mary Shelley’s mind as she wrote her renowned novel Frankenstein and while she was going through some turbulent moments in her life that influenced her work. However, it focuses so much on her relationship with her partner that instead of a horror movie, it resembles a romantic drama with some dark elements. Although it tries to use Mary’s decaying mental health to its favor, it doesn’t manage to escape from the romantic argument that envelops the plot, and it takes so many liberties over the original story that it neither works as a biography.

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