The story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster has been told in innumerable films, but Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes offers a point of view that is both fresh and enlightening. Her focus is not on Victor Frankenstein, but on Mary Wollstonecraft (Alix Wilton Regan), creator not only of Victor and his monster, but also of an entire literary genre: science fiction.
The basic outlines of Frankenstein’s creation are familiar. In 1816, the famous “year without a summer,”* when snow fell in June and rivers froze in July, Mary Wollstonecraft (not yet married to Shelley) spent the summer at a villa near Lake Geneva, along with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Byron’s lover and Mary’s stepsister Clair Clairmont, and Byron’s physician John William Polidori. Due to the unseasonably cold weather, they spent more time indoors than expected, and at some point Byron suggested they write ghost stories to amuse each other. This produced two noteworthy results: Polidori wrote the first modern vampire story, while Mary wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
What is usually left out of Frankenstein’s origin story is that Mary wrote it shortly after suffering a miscarriage, which nearly killed her (her own mother had died in childbirth). Not surprisingly, she was haunted by the loss of her baby, and the novel can be read as a metaphor of motherhood. The mistreatment of the monster, and the hubris of his creator, can also be interpreted as a condemnation of men oblivious to their effects on others, never questioning the power they hold by virtue of their chromosomes, nor reflecting on the responsibility that should accompany that power.
A Nightmare Wakes is Mary’s story, and in representing her mental state, it frequently blurs the boundary between what’s in her mind and what’s in the reality shared by her companions. This is done with such subtlety that you often don’t realize the film has left the shared world of experiences until you’re well into Mary’s feelings and perceptions. This poetical approach to storytelling is set against the severely spare symmetry of the shared villa, and heightened by the sensuous yet menacing beauty of the lake and surrounding meadow. The interior shots are darker than we’re used to seeing, but are entirely appropriate for a period when people depended on candles and a hearth fire for light once the sun set. Plus, the low-key lighting provides cinematographer Oren Soffer many opportunities to create gorgeous shots of faces sculpted by shadows.
Unkel, who also wrote the screenplay, evokes with great sensuality the daily experience of life in the 19th century. The characters in A Nightmare Awakes were more fortunate than many of their contemporaries, but they still lived In a time without electronic devices to distract them from their immediate social and environment, and without high-speed transportation to whisk them away should they desire to be elsewhere. The result was a particular intensity of immediate, material life which is well-conveyed on screen, with the strong sense of time and place well-supported by Madeline Wall’s production design, Deidra Catero’s art direction, and Jennifer Stroud’s costume design.
While A Nightmare Wakes is not a conventional gore fest, there’s plenty of horror in it, from an unusually graphic presentation of a miscarriage (there’s a lot of blood involved) to the unsparing depiction of casual cruelty among people who should know better. Percy (Giullian Yao Gioiello) is the chief offender in this regard—he’s in love with Mary, but has little interest in her feelings, and even less in considering how little tolerance the world has for women whose lives don’t match conventional standards of propriety. He’s also threatened by her writing, particularly when it takes her attention away from him, but you might say she had the last laugh in that regard: his poems are mainly read when assigned in English class, while everyone knows the story of Frankenstein. | Sarah Boslaugh
*The cause is now believed to be the eruption of Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, in 1815. The unusually cold, wet weather in 1816 caused crop failures in the northern hemisphere, leading not only to widespread hunger but also to events such as the invention of the bicycle (which, unlike a horse, does not need to eat).
A Nightmare Wakes will be available for streaming beginning Feb. 4 through Shudder’s web site.