Nora Unkel’s feature debut A Nightmare Wakes is a stunning piece of film that unsettles the audience from the start while remaining true to its core. While it is a twist on the biopic, it is still quite the humanist tale.
While composing her famous novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (Alix Wilton Regan) descends into opium – fuelled fever dream while carrying on a torrid love affair with Percy Shelley (Giullian Gioiello). As she writes, the characters of her novel come to life and begin to plague the relationships with those closest to her as the shadow of her monster threatens to overcome her.
As director Nora Unkel states, it is often forgotten that Frankenstein isn’t simply a film, about creating a monster. It is about a miscarriage, a metaphor for motherhood and also loss in general. While Mary loses her child, Percy also loses his wife and her his other unborn child. This causes a level of distance that Mary cannot cope with and adds to another loss to her fragile soul. By Percy causing the pain of being distant from Mary and the fact that he is the one impregnating her. In her eyes, he creates this sordid and hauntingly lost monster.
The wonderful twist here, much like the film Shirley, is that A Nightmare Wakes is told in a similar vein as Frankenstein itself. It is a fresh take that works so well here. Percy is Mary’s Frankenstein and she is the monster, ever-changing and morphing from something she doesn’t remember. By the end of the film, she is so far removed from that happily pregnant woman entering Switzerland that she knows she will never return to it. A key line in the film is when Mary is discussing her idea of not only the film but of her and her experiences. It is truly the same, ‘It is a tale of a monster, a creature who craves love, but only knows pain’.
By being having this traumatic (not the only time Shelley lost a child in reality) experience haunt her, changes Mary into something else. She also notices how quite separate she is from Percy, he doesn’t want to settle down and wants to be free, even when she needs him the most. She gives everything up for him and it causes the worst spiral in her. Devoid of the love she craves the monster within her is growing behind that door in the hallway and Percy is her horrid Frankenstein.
She is also careful not to exclude other important notes from Mary Shelley’s life, even if they are not broadly mentioned, they are subtly touched upon, like small flicks onto the painting, we notice them and in the grand scheme, they make this piece of art stand out more. This is a complex story to portray and for a feature debut, it is remarkably well done. It is vitally important also that this iteration of Mary Shelley is told from a female gaze. There is an understanding and care here that Unkel and her team can provide A Nightmare Wakes, that possibly would not be possible with a more male-centric crew and filmmaker.
Nora Unkel and cinematographer Oren Soffer have gone the ways of other directors such as Stanley Kubrick in lighting her 1800 era film in all-natural lighting with candles being the only foreign lighting used on screen. As much as possible. This causes the shadows to grow long and for some utterly horrible scenes to be hidden in the darkness leaving the sounds to echo through. This is a marvellous touch that builds the atmosphere perfectly. So as Mary begins to become her most troubled the grey clouds that cover over the film bring the cold better than most films could do.
Unkel’s use of light and sound also causes the audience to never settle into the film. At no point are we allowed to believe that everything is going to be okay. A large dark shadow has come over Mary’s life and it will simply not shift, no matter what she does. This is a visually arresting film, from the costumes to the set designs. Thought and care have gone into every shot and movement the characters make.
A Nightmare Wakes is a carefully created piece of art that breaks your heart in one way or another at every turn. Further proof that the horror genre is at its best when it isn’t afraid to bring in more human elements and there will be fewer films released this year with as many as in Nora Unkel’s debut. An outstanding film.
A Nightmare Wakes is available on Shudder from 4th February.
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