Shudder Streaming: A Nightmare Wakes (2021) - Reviewed


Photo Courtesy of Shudder

Much like Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the author’s personal life was a horror story in itself.  Death followed her since she was born:  her mother died in childbirth, her husband killed himself, and only one out of the five children with whom she became pregnant lived to adulthood.  With such tragedy befalling her, it makes sense why the concept of creating new life from death would intrigue her, ultimately leading to one of the greatest horror novels of all time.

Thanks to films like Gothic, many horror fans already know of one fateful night at Lord Byron’s estate in Switzerland:  a competition between friends to write the best ghost story inspired not only Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), but also John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819).  However, less horror fans know the intricacies of Shelley’s personal life, and that’s where A Nightmare Wakes comes in.  

A Nightmare Wakes touches upon the aforementioned night at Lord Byron’s, but instead chooses Mary Shelley’s relationship with her husband and her multiple pregnancies as its central focus.  Shelley’s bleak reality becomes intertwined with the novel she is writing; both her nightmares and waking life are saturated with the tale of Dr. Frankenstein until her grip on reality falters and her personal life is in shambles.  It is a befittingly bleak film for one of classic literature’s bleakest authors.  

Directed by Nora Unkel with a largely female crew, the film depicts the female body as a terror-evoking vessel that is manipulated by men and often betrays its host — a vessel through which Shelley receives little satisfaction, but often a great deal of trauma.  Teetering on the brink of body horror on several occasions, her obsession with her novel is manifested through visions of herself crying and bleeding ink.  This motif of bodily fluids emerging as ink is a powerful metaphor to blend the fantasy and reality surrounding her world.

In a conscious attempt to stay historically accurate, the lighting and design of A Nightmare Wakes captures the essence of 19th century Europe in the most dismal way possible, and it works to set the tone entirely.  All colors are intentionally muted, the rooms are riddled with moody shadows, and even the most vibrant nature shots seem coated in death with the film’s dreary color treatment.  It paints the picture of Mary Shelley’s life without saying a word, and despite it not looking the prettiest, it’s a deeply effective choice.

While the film succeeds in many ways, there are missed opportunities beneath the surface.  This psychological thriller is too timid in its attempt to blend the fictional Frankenstein’s tale with Shelley’s own.  The moments we are given work well, but they don’t make a lasting impact.  The film is most comfortable telling Shelley’s pregnancy story, and the progressively more present inklings of her novel bleeding into her existence could have been more clever and frequent.  We get glimpses of Dr. Frankenstein, and the film skirts around the notion of the monster being Shelley herself, but it’s a concept that’s not explored enough to maintain interest.

A Nightmare Wakes is a master of mood, but only a skilled novice at fear.  A slow-paced period piece fueled by relationships and inner turmoil, the film will disappoint audiences seeking genuine horror, understanding solely how to make people uncomfortable, but not entertaining them in the process.  If you go into the film expecting a creatively told, haunting biopic, then you’ll have a better viewing experience.  Otherwise, pass on this one.

--Andrea Riley