Film Review: ‘A Nightmare Wakes’ Nearly Induces Sleep

by Ben Martin

One of the first exposures to a sci-fi/horror story we all share is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). If you don’t learn about the novel in elementary school, then you’ve at least knew of, and had probably read it by the time you’re in middle school, and with good reason. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an endearing classic because it’s an exciting horror story predicated on the fallibility of human nature and the aspiration to create within all of that. Furthermore, Frankenstein is, at least to my knowledge, the first sci-fi/horror novel to be written by a woman. That was a big deal at the time of publication, and that’s still significant today as female authors are still underrepresented in horror literature.

A novel of such historical significance no doubt has the makings of a movie in it, right? Well, the new film A Nightmare Wakes intends to do just that by exploring the inspirations behind the creation of Frankenstein. Specifically, the movie delves into the torrid, tumultuous, and undoubtedly traumatic relationship between Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) and poet Percy Shelley (Giullian Gioiello).The romantic relationship of the Shelley’s is further complicated and impacted by difficulties and deaths following childbirth. These issues are worsened thanks to lustful feelings shared between Mary’s step-sister, Claire Claremont (Claire Glassford) and Percy. Mary takes refuge from this domestic horror by responding to the challenge to pen a terrifying story. But, in creating Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary begins to experience hallucinations of her tale come to life.

A Nightmare Wakes purports to be, and is certainly being marketed as a psychological horror film. Heck, it’s even receiving distribution via Shudder, which I and many other genre fans consider to be the definitive horror movie streaming service. However, unless you feel this movie’s hallucination sequences qualify as horror, I’d say A Nightmare Wakes qualifies as horror adjacent at best. Thus, don’t go expecting anything even mildly as horrific as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), because that is not what the movie in review is at all. More accurately, it’s a psychological/domestic drama.

Not that approaching this material as a drama is a bad idea. On the contrary, writer/director Nora Unkel’s (who is making her feature film debut) rooted and dramatic approach is, at the very least, a unique one. It’s also impressive that Unkel and crew could create a period drama on an independent budget. The cast here is also decent, and it’s easy to buy them as these real-life historical figures as I didn’t recognize any of the actors. Unfortunately, though, any empathy Mary evokes as the movie prattles forward slowly.

Beyond the movie’s period piece production and costume design, nothing else about this narrative works or is the least bit engaging. It feels like ninety percent of this film is focused on the domestic unrest of the Shelly’s as opposed to Mary’s creative impudence. As a result, the events and arguments within the household become tiring and repetitive. In the end, watching A Nightmare Wakes is like standing in a darkly-lit, dreary room (because that’s precisely what the cinematography of this movie looks like) and watching a couple argue as you awkwardly try and fail to leave unnoticed. 

By the halfway point of this movie, I did not care about its characters or their conflicts anymore. Instead, I felt utterly numb and tired. So, if that was the effect the filmmakers were hoping to achieve, they succeeded. But, even if that’s the case, I wholeheartedly suggest you avoid this film at all costs as it’s not worth the effort.

A Nightmare Wakes is currently available to stream on Shudder & Amazon Prime. 

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