The events at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in the gloomy summer of 1816 have long been a source of fascination and speculation for fans of horror literature. Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Claire Clairmont joined the exiled romantic Lord Byron and his personal doctor John Polidori for a brief holiday. However, beset by terrible weather and incessant rain, the group found themselves trapped indoors with nothing but their own imaginations (and a fair bit of laudanum) for company. The trip would spawn two milestones of gothic fiction: John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
It’s clear from the outset of A Nightmare Wakes that writer/director Nora Unkel is pitching the film at an audience already familiar with these events. We rock up on the shores of lake Geneva with Mary (Alix Wilton Regan), Claire (Claire Glassford) and Percy (Giullian Gioiello), having been provided with no introduction or background on any of the players. What follows is a film that explores Mary Shelley’s prescient invention of Frankenstein. It examines the impact of pre- and post-natal depression on her creative process, as well as the obstacles presented by jealous and arrogant male figures that surround her.
Any film that tries to marry two genres together is playing a difficult game. Here, the combination of horror and historical drama never quite meshes. The two modes are at loggerheads throughout. Mary Shelley’s marital troubles and mental anguish are explored through hallucinatory scenes in which the blood of miscarriage is intermingled with the ink of literary creation. It’s a handy visual metaphor, but as the film progresses, these horrific digressions become muddled and difficult to follow. As Mary begins to view the people around her as analogues for her characters (controlling husband Percy becomes the ambitious Victor, for example), the point starts to become lost.
Similarly, the historical threads become entangled. Condensing many of the pivotal moments in Mary’s life into what feels like a few months for the sake of narrative expediency will be jarring to those familiar with her story. Meanwhile, the budgetary limitations and the reliance on the lake as a central motif means that the action is all set in the same few locations. Costuming is similarly bland, with none of the rich bohemian sensibility that Romantic poets would have prized.
It’s easy to compare A Nightmare Wakes with other adaptations of the same events. Perhaps the most striking counterpoint is Ken Russell‘s Gothic, a depiction totally in love with its own absurdity, exhibiting all of the most cheesy and over-the-top gothic trappings. By contrast, A Nightmare Wakes is po-faced and austere. Visually, the whole film is washed out, colourless and gloomy. It’s a stylistic choice that may have historical justification (the miserable weather that plagued the party may have been caused by a volcanic eruption, which left parts of Europe overcast for three years), but it gives the whole enterprise a lifeless quality.
Alix Wilton Regan gives a good performance as Mary, but the film’s stress on very specific aspects of her life runs the risk of turning her into a one-dimensional tragic figure. She was the daughter of anarchist philosophers, her mother a famous feminist activist. She abandoned her family at 19 to pursue an affair with a famous poet. She was at the centre of a cadre of intellectual heavyweights and outstripped them all with her talents. While it is certainly true that the loss of her children impacted her life and work deeply, the film’s laser focus on these events comes across as reductive. Her intelligence and vibrancy, her radicalism and rebellion and even her literary genius go unexamined and unexplored. Instead, the Mary that we get is one whose most famous achievement is put down entirely to her deteriorating mental state.
As the opening of the film makes clear, this is an adaptation for those already familiar (at least in passing) with the historical facts. For this intended audience, A Nightmare Wakes has little new to offer. Despite a few forays into more entertaining genre territory, it ends up being a fairly forgettable adaptation of well-worn events. Nonetheless, it represents a competent first outing for director Nora Unkel, who displays confidence behind the camera. We look forward to seeing her future work.