Mary Shelley is the mother of science fiction. Her writing and vision were the keys to building the foundation that the genre is built upon. But her life wasn’t without pain, and that’s something most of her readers may not be aware of, especially centuries after her death. Shudder Original, A Nightmare Wakes, written and directed by Nora Unkel, hones in on the pain of Shelley’s life, as much as it does her creativity.
A Nightmare Wakes stars Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Philippe Bowgen, and Lee Garrett, Claire Glassford, and Shannon Spangler. The film focuses specifically on the time while Shelley was conceiving of and writing Frankenstein. While composing her famous novel, Mary Shelley (Regan) descends into an opium-fueled fever dream while carrying on a torrid love affair with Percy Shelley (Gioiello). But what was once passionate dalliance changes as Shelley pushes to marriage, she becomes pregnant, and Percy reveals that he isn’t done having dalliances with other women. Thrown into depression and loss, Shelley writes, and as she does, the characters of her novel come to life. Victor Frankenstein offers her solace and acceptance while also beginning to plague her relationship with Percy.
Whether it is due to his jealousy and pettiness of her talent or the way her literary masterpiece has consumed her life, Percy begins to resent her, and the film begins to showcase the unsettling reality of a woman in her time. Beholden to a man and kept as a prize and not seen as a person, Shelley’s life is hard to watch. As she descends into depression, her identity as a wife and condition as a pregnant woman takes precedence over her work as a writer. This makes things worst.
Summing up, A Nightmare Wakes is hard. It’s a depressing film that showcases pain in an intimate way of one of the most influential writers in history. It’s a snapshot of Shelley that lies outside her success and instead showcases her trauma. I don’t know how I feel about seeing Shelley’s mental health and darkness laid bare for audiences. In one aspect, it’s inspiring. She was there, and if you’re there now, you can make it out of it. But on the other, seeing Shelley in this light paints her as a woman obsessed with the men around her, whether it’s the one she creates or the one that she begs to see and respect her.
The bulk of the film shows Shelley pushing to be accepted by Percy. First as his mistress, next as a wife, and then as a mother to his child. On Percy’s end, he leaves her for weeks, forsakes her, requests that she stop writing, and ruins her novel. But in it all, Shelley keeps asking him to come back. She keeps pushing him to see her. And when he doesn’t, she falls into Victor – a personification of what she loves of Percy and who is beholden to her. While this element of A Nightmare Wakes is executed well, and the performances, especially by Ragan as Mary Shelley shine in this bleak darkness, I struggle to be okay bearing witness to the struggle. Not because Shelley is an icon and isn’t allowed to be shown experiencing trauma, but because a man consumes her. Regan is fantastic as Shelley. Her shift from vulnerable and broken to fearless is beautifully shown in every scene. The biggest thing is when the film shows physical intimacy. When we sex on screen, it’s used to showcase passion but also depression and even more desperation in Shelley’s life.
That said, the ending of the film resonates with one of my favorite lines ever written, not just by Shelley, but by any author: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.” The ending of A Nightmare Wakes shows Shelley as her own person and a mother, but more importantly, an author. It ends with her being free from Percy, from marriage, and seemingly from the pain, she had experienced. But it’s only a moment, while the rest of the 91-minute film is focused on her struggle.
Overall, A Nightmare Wakes is a good film. It’s an intimate film. And ultimately, it feels like a personal film for Unkel. For those familiar with Mary Shelley’s work but not her life, this film will shed new light on the author. For those who knew of her struggle, it’ll point it out even more. A period piece that revels in Shelley’s pain to tell its story with gorgeous visuals, A Nightmare Wakes is worth a watch in the end.
A Nightmare Wakes is available on Shudder, February 4, 2021.
A Nightmare Wakes
A Nightmare Wakes is a good film. It’s an intimate film. And ultimately, it feels like a personal film for Unkel. For those familiar with Mary Shelley’s work but not her life, this film will shed new light on the author. For those who knew of her struggle, it’ll point it out even more. A period piece that revels in Shelley’s pain to tell its story with gorgeous visuals, A Nightmare Wakes is worth a watch in the end.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.