Shudder Review: A Nightmare Wakes (2021)

Directed by: Nora Unkel. Starring: Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Phillippe Bowgen. Runtime: 1h 30 min.

In Nora Unkel’s debut feature, she takes on one of horror’s most famous stories in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Blending the content and themes of the narrative from the novel itself and combining it with factual aspects of Mary Shelley’s life, A Nightmare Wakes feels like a unique beast, rooted firmly in gothic horror rather than any kind-of traditional biography.

The film depicts Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) during her relationship to poet Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello). Early in the film, the pair visit Lord Byron’s (Phillippe Bowgen) residence and he suggests a writing contest in which someone will win by crafting the scariest story. This inspires Mary Shelley to write her famed novel.

Above all else, this film is a psychological character study of how obsessed Shelley becomes with her own story, slowly becoming a monster herself. The way the film portrays this is effective and the most intriguing aspect is Shelley’s reliance on her fictional character of Victor Frankenstein. The further Percy strays away from her, the more invested she becomes in her story and the more prominent Frankenstein becomes, creating a compelling dynamic, as well as a solid dual role performance from Guillian Yao Gioiello.

Alix Wilton Regan is great as Mary Shelley, too, believably portraying where Shelley’s psychological state is at different times throughout the film and throwing herself into this character. This film is fictional for much of it, but the tragedy that Shelley herself faced is felt here, and that shines through in Wilton Regan’s performance.

A Nightmare Wakes article1
Alix Wilton Regan as Mary Shelley in A Nightmare Wakes. (Courtesy of Shudder.)

On top of featuring strong performances and good writing, Unkel’s direction is memorable, too, especially with the film’s symbolism. There are many moments throughout the film featuring blood and ink to represent the death that has followed Mary throughout her life, and the ink to represent the life she’s creating with Frankenstein. The water has a life of its own, too, giving the film a poetic and serene feel, despite the gothic nature here. The horror part feels creepy throughout, though it’s never overwhelming.

As a film set in the 1810s, the costume design (by Jennifer Stroud) looks great and captures the feel of the era. As well, the set design (the production design is by Madeline Wall) in one scene in particular is awesome, and that’s when we see Frankenstein’s laboratory. This is all wonderfully shot by cinematographer Oren Soffer.

Learning about Shelley’s life at the same time is fascinating, too, though I wouldn’t use this as a reference in an essay about her or anything, but the facts that are brought into the film are interesting, especially a scene that feels more like “trivia” moment, when one of the friends John Polidori (Lee Garrett) says he’s working on a story called Vampyre, the first modern vampire story.

As well, the facts about Percy’s relationship with Mary’s stepsister Claire (Claire Glassford) are brought in here, and while this development is important for Mary’s character as Percy becomes more distant, but this feels more like a vague sub-plot than any large focus. The focus is just Mary’s mental state throughout, and the believable arc of this makes A Nightmare Wakes well worth the watch.

Score: 75/100

This film started streaming on Shudder on February 4, 2021, in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

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