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A Nightmare Wakes – Film Review
While an overview of the facts from Mary Shelley‘s life are historically documented, A Nightmare Wakes is a dramatized filling in of events surrounding Shelley’s summer in Sweden, writing her famous novel Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan, The Wife) descends into an opium-inspired postpartum, grief fueled spiral during her complicated affair with Percy Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello, Scream: The TV Series, Marvel’s Iron Fist). As she creates her fictional monster, Shelley also births her masterpiece and mental undoing.
The Beauty and Horrors of Womanhood
A wondrous lake at dawn. The sounds of water gently lapping at the shore. A stunning pregnant woman walks into the water. She doesn’t stop walking, silently, until her head disappears under the current. The lake remains undisturbed but she never emerges.
We do learn, much later, that the pregnant, suicidal woman in the opener is Percy Shelley’s wife. Percy seems to have that affect on women, because the next character we are introduced to is a very pregnant Mary Godwin, known by history as Mary Shelley. When the audience meets her, however, she is the gossiped about mistress of a very married Percy. Having given up her family to travel with Percy, Mary goes on to miscarry their child in a dramatic scene of ink mixed with blood on the backdrop of a flowing white dress.
Despite Percy’s hero impression here, their love story quickly becomes a complicated nightmare of cheating, deception, mistrust and madness. Both Percy and Mary party nightly with opioids and drink, and while Percy disappears to womanize, Mary is consumed in postpartum grief and nightmares which spur her writing.
A Nightmare Wakes is well-acted, with a refreshingly diverse cast and leading lady Alix Wilton Regan is riveting to watch. Obvious attention to lighting, sound editing, breath taking scenery and costume design makes the film feel more like a play, perhaps non-musical Hamilton mixed with the recent Rebecca remake. It’s fascinating to watch Mary’s creative brilliance as the process of birthing her masterpiece adds tremendous layers of stress to her new pregnancy and early motherhood experience.
All is complicated by desperate (and quite frustrating to watch) attempts to keep Percy by her side. Both Mary and Percy were writers, and professional jealousy weaves through their already paranoia laden relationship.
It’s not just his infidelity that makes Percy hard to stomach: He shows selfishness such as original refusal to to get married, holding it as a favor over Mary’s head once they did wed. He shows littel attention to their newborn baby, and less to the baby’s clearly struggling mother. Percy is also perpetrator of a lengthy sexual assault on Mary, which drags for well over a minute.
A Nightmare Wakes‘ viewers should be aware of this trigger warning, as sex is frequently used as a weapon in the battles of will between lovers. The camera does not cut away from long, brutal scenes of sexual manipulation.
A Nightmare Wakes Conclusion
A Nightmare Wakes is not a traditional horror film, despite being housed on Shudder. This is a snapshot in the life of a brilliant woman struggling with sexual assault, mental illness, opioid abuse, gaslighting by her lover, gender discrimination by her peers, and overwhelming uncertainty of her worthiness as a woman, mother, lover, and intellectual.
Mary Shelley must question her own sanity, and not many prospects are more terrifying. This is a tale of female survival, told primarily by female filmmakers. Do not go in expecting to be scared by monsters outside of the human mind.
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