Alix Wilton Regan plays Mary Shelley in the summer of 1816, isolated on the shores of Lake Geneva with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello), Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen), Claire Clairmont (Claire Glassford) and Dr John Polidori (Lee Garrett)). Percy Shelley was married at the time, but Mary was also pregnant with her child, a baby she loses at the start of “A Nightmare Wakes,” sending her into a spiral of grief and depression that includes nightmarish visions that inspire the story she was challenged to write. Everyone in the mansion is writing a horror tale – only Mary will change the world.
Sometimes it seems like Unkel has absolutely no interest in making a horror movie, weaving themes of jealousy, sexuality, and sexism into a relatively straightforward drama. Unkel’s historical precision in terms of craftsmanship is sometimes admirable, but the film doesn’t work because the performers never come across as believable people from that period. The set is surprisingly lifeless in mannerism and emotion, as if they thought this was how people behaved in 1816. It gives the whole project a feeling of bad community theater. I’m usually not the kind of critic who digs into bad performances – they’re just as often the director’s fault and not the actor’s fault – but it’s hard to avoid here. It all makes for a really long 90 minute movie.
And then there’s the horror film tied to this drama of depression and the writing process. Unkel’s main technique is the dream sequence, suggesting that Unkel’s subconscious has influenced his work by connecting the real issues in his life to the kind of terrifying images that come to us in the middle of the night. Approaching the outdated genre of the biopic by filtering it through a world of horror that its subject matter has helped define is an admirable and interesting premise for a film, but Unkel and his team never strike the right tone. “A Nightmare Wakes” is likely to put you to sleep.
Now available on Shudder.