Written and Directed by: Nora Unkel
Starring: Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Yao Gioiello, and Claire Glassford
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The Birth of Frankenstein
The creation surrounding Frankenstein has nearly become synonymous with the novel itself. Having been passed down during the last two centuries, it’s become the stuff of legend in its own right, mythology for an era that would appreciate such a turn of events. The Romantics were nothing if not grandiose thinkers, with a keen awareness of legacy and the power to achieve immortality through art. You have to think that Mary Shelley and her companions at that infamous Geneva gathering in the summer of 1816 would be pleased as punch to know they’ve become folk figures in their own tales, which have only grown taller in time. They’d be practically over the moon to hear that their formative summer has long been the fascinating of motion pictures, starting with 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein and stretching now to A Nightmare Wakes.
But where James Whale’s monumental sequel treated the true story as a framing device, Nora Unkel’s freak-out dwells on it as its subject and imagines that life imitated art: just as Victor Frankenstein gave birth to a monstrous creation that grew beyond his control, Mary Shelley hatched a tale that consumed her mind. Through Unkel’s lens, Frankenstein becomes a reflection of the various traumas in Shelley’s life, an approach that isn’t altogether novel since scholars have parsed the book's pages for evidence of its author’s psyche. Where A Nightmare Wakes missteps, however, is in its distortion of reality, which is so misguided and warped that it only demeans its subjects, reducing them to players in a tawdry drama and doing nothing to illuminate their lives since the film is so enamored with fiction.
The tale begins in Geneva, rightfully depicted as a less than idyllic time in Shelley’s life. At this time, she’s still Mary Godwin (Alix Wilton Regan), mistress to Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello), who refuses to divorce his wife and still carries himself like a real cad, galavanting around Europe despite drowning in debt. Their gathering with Lord Bryron (Philippe Bowgen), John Polidori (Lee Garrett), and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont (Claire Glassford) offers a brief respite from their ills, but it can only do so much. Byron’s suggestion that they horrify each other with ghost stories inspires Mary—grappling with her recent miscarriage and her lover’s distance—to imagine a mad scientist who creates life from death. Not content to simply confine this to the stuff of campfire tales, she begins writing the book that will become Frankenstein—if it doesn’t drive her mad first.
The basic idea here—exploring the creation of Frankenstein as cathartic exorcism for its author—is well-intended. Again, it’s a line of scholarship that’s been pursued for decades now, and even the most cursory examinations of the novel lend itself to a biographical criticism. Hell, I regularly teach this book to disinterested teenagers who can put two and two together and figure out how a woman who experienced infidelity and difficult childbirths might be inspired to write a story about the horrors men inflict upon the world. A Nightmare Wakes dutifully connects Shelley the book’s various characters, revealing her kinship with Victor (the creator of a misbegotten child), the Monster (the rejected child), and Elizabeth (the longing lover). However, it’s all just surface level stuff that doesn’t do much beyond noticing the connections: if this were a student paper, I’d be asking them to make a point, and A Nightmare Wakes strains in imagining this ordeal as the origin story that ultimately forged meek Mary Godwin into Mary Shelley, the ultimate goth girl.
Admittedly, it does take an interesting—if not ultimately wrongheaded—path at arriving there. As she slips further into her delusions, Mary begins to imagine Victor less as a manifestation of her dark impulses and more of a lover. She fantasizes about making love with her creation (if nothing else, A Nightmare Wakes rightfully captures just how horny these folks were), who becomes a replacement for Percy as he grows more distant. It’s an interesting take on the gothic double trope, and a more articulate film might find something vital to say about the intermingling of the female gothic with its male counterpart. Some of this stuff is obviously on Unkel’s mind (and how could it not be when she’s dealing with Mary Shelley, daughter of one of Europe’s most radical feminists and a free spirit in her own right), but it never quite rises above the level of speculative fiction: “what if Frankenstein was the boiling point of Shelley’s intertwining traumas?”
The major issue is that it is so speculative, and with no real aim. While it’s true Shelley suffered from the loss of her children (she eventually endured four miscarriages) and other heartbreaks (Percy was notoriously unfaithful), there’s little indication that this haunted the creation of Frankenstein. On the contrary, Shelley’s own introduction to the novel (written over a decade later, to be fair) refers to the book as “the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words,” a declaration that undercuts the supposition driving A Nightmare Wakes. It’s one thing for a biopic to play fast and loose with the certain details of a subjects life (something this one does plenty of by moving around certain events, like Percy’s own death, which didn’t occur until several years after Frankenstein was published); it’s another thing altogether to invent and speculate to the detriment of its subjects, especially when it needlessly diminishes them.
A Nightmare Wakes postures at championing Shelley as some kind of female empowerment figure, a woman who will inspire fear since she can’t inspire love. Not to presume the thoughts of a long-dead woman, but I can’t imagine Shelley herself embracing such a legacy. In many ways, she was the ultimate goth girl, not because she was the nigh-demonic avenger imagined here but because of her capacity to love and appreciate beauty even in heartbreak. She allegedly lost her virginity at her mother’s grave and definitely kept the remains of Percy’s heart. Despite their difficulties, she remained very much in love with her husband, and the liberties taken with the relationship here border on character assassination.
Not only was Percy supportive of his wife’s writing (he was the one who suggested she expand it into a novel), but Mary was also instrumental in keeping his legacy alive by championing his work. To suggest, as A Nightmare Wakes does, that he was driven into a jealous, suicidal rage by his wife’s work is preposterous. And to further suggest that Mary would derive a twisted pleasure from such a turn of events is beyond the pale. Surely, there’s a more productive way to imagine Mary Shelley as an avatar of the female gothic or thwarted female creation (we know that many contemporary critics questioned how a woman could imagine such horrors) than to resort to such galling fiction. Is it not enough that Shelley’s greatest creation has grown mangled and twisted through the years: do we similarly need to distort the details of her life in the service of a shallow female empowerment story that isn’t actually doing much empowering? Did we really need to see Mary Shelley reduced to a hysterical, spurned lover whose biggest goal in life is to apparently give birth to children?
These inaccuracies and fictions could be forgivable if they were in the service of something profound, or even if they were in the service of noteworthy craftsmanship. But A Nightmare Wakes also does the unthinkable in dulling down one of history’s most vivid and interesting chapters, reimagining it as a tepid, hushed horror movie that weaves sparse grotesqueries through its belabored melodrama. It’s the sort of thing I usually go for, but Unkel’s direction isn’t quite commanding enough to capture the kind of dread atmosphere this kind of movie deserves. Instead, A Nightmare Wakes flounders, its shocking moments feeling more like fits and starts rather than emphatic grace notes as the performers admirably wade through the motions, none of them ever capable of shaking off the sensation that we’re watching an elaborate costume drama. Actors playing dress-up for historical fanfiction is no way to outrun the inaccuracies this film requires to manufacture its drama. Ken Russell’s Gothic it ain’t.
I’ll be the first to admit that A Nightmare Wakes hits a little too close for me. Shelley and Frankenstein have been a lifelong fascination, so Unkel’s deviations from history are too much for me to overcome, a hurdle that might not even exist for many viewers. And I’m sure Unkel and crew would even plead their case: there’s no way anyone would make a movie about Mary Shelley with the intent to misfire. But we all know that Victor Frankenstein himself protested about his own misguided ambition—and look how that turned out.
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