“Don’t leave us now, Mary,” an apparition pleads to the main character in Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes. “The story’s just beginning.”
Released a few weeks ago on Shudder, A Nightmare Wakes is the latest attempt to synthesize the life story of author Mary Shelley with elements of her most famous novel, 1818’s Frankenstein. The film’s Mary (Alix Wilton Regan) is imagining a conversation with Victor Frankenstein—or is it Percy Shelley? In Unkel’s film, Mary envisions the people in her life as the characters in the story she’s writing, casting her lover (and eventual husband) Percy (Giullian Gioiello) as the obsessive scientist who brings a creature to life from an assemblage of dead body parts. Mary casts her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Claire Glassford) as Elizabeth, Victor’s wife, and places herself in the role of the creature.
A Nightmare Wakes takes place during the summer that Mary, Percy, Claire, poet Lord Byron and Byron’s companion Dr. John Polidori spent on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, when Mary famously conceived the idea for Frankenstein as part of a competition to write ghost stories. The origin story for Frankenstein has proved nearly as enticing for filmmakers as the novel itself, incorporated into multiple films about Mary’s life, from straightforward period dramas to horror hybrids like A Nightmare Wakes. James Whale kicked off the trend in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, which begins with a prologue set on a stormy night at the home of Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon).
Byron marvels at the ability of a quiet young woman like Mary (Elsa Lanchester) to compose such a horrifying tale. “Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived of Frankenstein?” he pontificates, as Mary sits meekly cross-stitching. But Lanchester brings a mischievous look to Mary, even as she plays coy. “You know how lightning alarms me,” she protests, just before teasing that the tale everyone knows as Frankenstein has more to it than previously revealed. Mary then begins to narrate Whale’s sequel, which of course bears very little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s actual novel.
In just that six-minute prologue, Whale establishes a template for future cinematic representations of Mary Shelley. He freely distorts the details of both Mary’s life and her famous novel to suit his own stylistic ends, and he highlights a perceived contrast between Mary as a fragile young woman and the indelible horrors she created. Later in the film, Whale introduces another key element of Mary’s movie mythology, when Lanchester returns, uncredited, as the title character, with her iconic shock of white hair, hissing and screaming at the monster (Boris Karloff). That bland and lovely brow has taken on a whole new countenance.
Fifty years later, three filmmakers took on the Mary/Frankenstein story almost simultaneously, in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), Gonzalo Suarez’s Rowing With the Wind (1988) and Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer (1988). All three movies focus on the summer at Lake Geneva, with approaches that range from subdued (Haunted Summer) to unhinged (Gothic). Whether Mary is enjoying tea time or participating in a drug-fueled freakout, though, these movies all take a curiously dismissive attitude toward her writing talents, one that carries through to A Nightmare Wakes.
Both Rowing With the Wind and Gothic essentially blame Mary’s creation of Frankenstein for the misfortunes that befell her and her Lake Geneva companions in subsequent years, turning the act of writing into a sort of sinister summoning. This is depicted quite literally in Rowing With the Wind, as Mary (Lizzy McInnerny) conjures up the monster (Jose Carlos Rivas) in physical form one night at Lake Geneva, and it continues to stalk her and her loved ones for years to come. She takes no satisfaction in writing the novel or experiencing its success, and like Victor Frankenstein, she’s driven mad by pursuing the creature, attempting to stop it from killing again. “He’s nothing but the fruit of my pretension and pride,” she laments late in the movie, and Suarez frames the story with Mary, like Victor, chasing the monster to the barren arctic, and seemingly perishing there.
In Gothic, it’s merely visions of future misfortune that Mary (Natasha Richardson) conjures, as part of a surreal night of drug-induced hallucinations and paranoia. Percy (Julian Sands) and Byron (Gabriel Byrne) consume laudanum like it’s water, while Mary remains comparatively sober, but they’re all beset by demons over the course of their first night at Byron’s Villa Diodati. One thing that all Mary Shelley movies have in common is that they’re quite horny, and Russell, not surprisingly, leans into the debauchery. But even as he’s creating striking images like a pair of breasts with eyeballs for nipples or the severed head of Polidori (Timothy Spall) looking up at Byron from the floor, Russell still places Mary in an inferior position to her male counterparts. “I defer to the more experienced writers,” she offers demurely when the idea of the story-writing competition comes up.
The Mary of Haunted Summer is even more demure, and Passer’s film (based on the 1974 novel by Anne Edwards) is mostly a restrained period drama, with its Mary (Alice Krige) as the comparative scold of the Lake Geneva group. Claire (Laura Dern) throws herself at Byron (Philip Anglim)—who’s really the main character—and both Byron and Percy (Eric Stoltz) eagerly smoke lots of opium, but Mary holds herself back. “I don’t believe that feelings can be manufactured in a pipe or bottle,” she huffs. Krige makes her wet-blanket version of Mary more appealing than McInnerny’s in Rowing With the Wind, at least, although Anglim’s irritatingly hammy Byron has nothing on the charms of Byrne in Gothic or Hugh Grant in Rowing With the Wind.
Even in a movie bearing her name, 2017’s Mary Shelley, Mary (Elle Fanning) still ends up largely defined by the men in her life, although at least screenwriter Emma Jensen and director Haifaa al-Mansour give her some time to herself before hooking her up with Percy (Douglas Booth). These filmmakers also finally take Mary’s writing seriously, showing her scribbling away during nearly any private moment she can find, and giving her an actual point of view on her approach and style. “Anything that curdles the blood and quickens the beatings of the heart,” Mary confidently responds when Percy asks her to define her idea of worthy writing.
Fanning, the only onscreen Mary who’s the same age as the person she’s playing (Mary was 19 at the time she wrote Frankenstein), imbues Mary with more inner strength and creative vision than any other version of the character. At one point in A Nightmare Wakes, Mary emerges from a reverie to discover that pages of Frankenstein have been written seemingly by magic, but the Mary of Mary Shelley works hard for every bit of prose she produces. The sojourn at Lake Geneva takes up only about 20 minutes of this movie, and there are no supernatural elements, aside from Mary’s brief inspirational nightmare of the creature (here with Ben Hardy’s Polidori standing in as Victor Frankenstein). Fanning’s elegant performance aside, Mary Shelley is a bit stuffy, veering too far away from the lurid lasciviousness of the ’80s Mary movies.
A Nightmare Wakes veers right back, with 90 minutes of hysterical wailing, red blood mixing with black ink, and Mary’s hallucination of Victor Frankenstein performing oral sex on the woman who created him. And yet it’s a grim, gray slog, once again losing Mary the person to her famous novel and the other famous writers she associated with. “She lives!” cries this movie’s Victor, appropriating the famous catch phrase from Whale’s films to refer to Mary herself. But the problem with all of these movies is that Mary is never truly alive onscreen, only exhumed in service of the iconic monster she’ll forever be associated with.