by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock.
Mary Shelley’s nightmare wakes, explains the film, because her life was a waking nightmare.”
The events surrounding the birth of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein are almost as famous as the novel itself. During the rainy summer of 1816, the scandalous Lord Byron played host to the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley’s young lover and soon-to-be wife Mary, and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont at Byron’s Lake Geneva villa in Switzerland. In attendance as well was Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John Polidori. Confined to the villa by the inclement weather, Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story, and Mary’s contribution, the result of a nightmare, was the tale of scientist obsessed with instilling life into dead matter but who then recoils from his achievement, setting into motion disastrous consequences.
In preparation for screening A Nightmare Wakes, writer/director Nora Unkel’s take on the novel Frankenstein’s origin story, I rewatched the most famous version of these events: Ken Russell’s delirious 1986 film Gothic, starring Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron, Julian Sands as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley, Myriam Cyr as Claire Clairmont, and Timothy Spall as Dr. John Polidori. Russell’s film can be succinctly characterized as a hot mess. The actors are hot and the plot is a mess; however, despite – or perhaps because of – its messiness, the film successfully achieves a hallucinatory quality as the characters wander into and attempt to flee from nightmares of their own creation.
Russell’s Gothic, however, turns out not to be the best point of reference for thinking about Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes, despite the fact that Unkel’s film chronicles the same events (although with significant liberties taken with historical accuracy). Instead, curiously, a more accurate comparison is with Robert Egger’s 2015 film, The Witch. In Egger’s cold, joyless depiction of an isolated Puritan family, protagonist Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is forced to contend with the straight-jacket of patriarchal culture that, in contrast, makes the wickedness of witchcraft seem monstrously appealing.
Like The Witch, Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes is a bleak tale of the ways women are isolated and trapped by their dependence on men and by patriarchal culture in general. Indeed, the film’s first shot is of a pregnant woman – who we later learn is Percy Shelley’s abandoned first wife, Harriet – walking into a lake and not resurfacing. The action then picks up with Percy (Guillian Yao Gioiello), a pregnant Mary (Alix Wilton Regan), and Claire (Claire Glassford) arriving at Byron’s villa, leading to the famous ghost story contest.
Unlike Russell’s Gothic, however, the events that follow do not take place over the course of an evening, or even primarily at Byron’s villa. Instead, the timeline is extended over a period of many months as Mary, increasingly isolated in a smaller guest house, miscarries, gets raped by a drunk Shelley, marries Shelley (although Shelley clearly telegraphs that he resents this imposition), becomes pregnant again, and gives birth, only for the baby to die soon after. As these events unfold, Mary becomes more and more desperate to preserve her relationship with an increasingly distant Shelley who lacks the maturity or attention span to inconvenience himself by attending to Mary’s needs.
Against this bleak reality is then counterpoised Mary’s imagining of her novel in which Percy is cast as a more supportive and loving Victor Frankenstein and she, Mary, plays the role of the creature. The film is unsubtle in its equation of Mary’s tears and blood with ink; her misery in life and, particularly, her difficulties carrying a pregnancy to term, become the basis for her act of successful creation: her novel – what Mary Shelley herself referred to in the preface to the novel’s third edition in 1831 as her “hideous progeny.” Mary’s nightmare wakes, explains the film, because her life was a waking nightmare.
A Nightmare Wakes is beautifully shot by cinematographer Oren Soffer and features convincing sets and costuming. This creation story, however, ultimately feels lifeless. All of the male characters, no doubt by design, are thoroughly unlikeable – Philippe Bowgen’s Byron, who more or less disappears over the course of the film, is skin-crawlingly arrogant and callous, while Gioiello’s not especially compelling Shelley is selfish and abusive. No spark of intimacy exists anywhere between the characters and the sex scenes are devoid of eroticism.
More of a problem though is that Alix Wilton Regan’s Mary primarily comes across as pathetic and, increasingly, unstable. Unlike Thomasin in The Witch, who at least embraces the decision to “live deliciously,” Mary finally lacks any agency whatsoever. Her famous novel is not presented as an act of creation or of literary genius, but rather the sad fantasy of an abused woman whose philandering and self-absorbed husband withholds affection and who feels herself to be a monstrous failure for not successfully bearing children. In the end – spoiler alert – in one of many departures from historical accuracy, Percy dramatically walks into the water as his wife Harriet did at the start of the film, and Mary is left standing with her fantasy family replacement for him and their child.
All of which is to say that the film is, finally, a tragedy. Mary, isolated, abandoned, abused, and increasingly unstable, hallucinated Frankenstein into being to compensate for and escape from a bleak, lonely existence. The result is a film not horrific – despite it being produced for the Shudder channel, there is no real gore or violence – but sad. One hastens to add that Mary’s circumstances undoubtedly reflect the situation of women in the nineteenth century in general: dependent on fathers and husbands, often isolated in their performance of domestic duties, subject to a sexual double standard that permitted their husbands much more autonomy. And, despite the film’s deviations from historical accuracy, it is true that Mary Shelley’s life was tumultuous, including the deaths of four of her five children. But I am not sure what the film achieves by recasting Mary Shelley’s creation as wholly the escapist fantasies of a despondent wife because it seems less to honor her than to diminish her achievement. Missing from the film in the end is the spark of life that animates Mary Shelley’s novel and the creature that has stalked through its pages and our imagination for over 200 years.
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock is professor of English at Central Michigan University and an associate editor for The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. He is also a founding member of the MLA Gothic Studies Form. He has published 24 books and more than 80 essays and book chapters, the majority of which focus on the Gothic in American literature, film, and culture. Among his book publications are The Monster Theory Reader (2020 Minnesota), The Cambridge Companion to the American Gothic (2018), The Age of Lovecraft (with Carl Sederholm, 2016), The Vampire Film: Undead Cinema (Wallflower Press, 2012), Charles Brockden Brown (University of Wales, 2011), and Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women (2008). His current project is called Gothic Things: Thing Power, Dark Enchantment, and Anthropocene Anxiety. Visit him at JeffreyAndrewWeinstock.com.