So many movies about Mary Shelley and the writing of “Frankenstein,” and yet there’s always room for another bad one.
“A Nightmare Wakes,” coming entirely too soon after the bigger budget/name cast “Mary Shelley,” or for that matter “Gothic” and the all-star “Rowing with the Wind” in the ’80s, is a version of the Frankenstein creation myth that makes one wonder how the writer, wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and confidante of Lord Byron, ever had the time.
What with all the bad, dimly-lit sex, the dead babies and the bloody soap opera that swirled around their circle, her adulterous lover-later-husband sleeping with her half sister, impregnating his not-yet-ex-wife, Byron coming on to anything with two legs I mean.
Who, even today, could keep it all straight? Aside from Shonda Rhimes?
Not writer-director Nora Unkel, alas, losing herself trying to turn an overfamiliar story, of Lord Byron’s teasing “best ghost story by firelight” “competition, his doctor and pal Polidori coming with the first famous vampire story and Mary S. topping it with ” It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”
I mean, she could see the screenplay possibilities, even back in 1818.
That’s when Mary (Alix Wilton Regan), the man who made her “the other woman” Shelley (Giullian Yao Gioiello) and her half-sister Claire (Claire Glassford) summered in Switzerland with Byron (Philippe Bowgen) and Dr. Polidori (Lee Garrett).
Even if you can’t remember all the particulars, the basics stick to you, film by Gothic film. Percy’s haunted and lusty, Byron’s the doomed life of the party, Polidori’s got a great idea for a genre-launching novel (“The Vampyre”). Mary Shelley? She’s the one with the nightmares, haunted by lost babies and blood and lives that might be retrievable after death, with the right application of…science.
Unkel films much of the story in a period piece murk, crafting a short thriller that seems to waste more screen time than it can afford. Staring out onto the lake, wading in the lake, rejecting Percy’s sexual advances, submitting to others, and on and on.
There’s little here recognizable as “Frankenstein in the Writing,” just a hint of a scene or two from the novel (not the bowdlerized films of it) coming to Mary, and the odd shot of her tipping quill into ink and scribbling furiously on the page.
She may “feel like Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble.” That doesn’t mean we’d want to watch a movie of her doing that.
“It was on a dreary night of November,” she intones more than once, in love with that line from the finished book, a masterpiece polished by one of the great poets of the day — her husband.
Whatever it is most of us want from this story — little tastes of recitation by candlelight raising the hairs of the back of the neck would be grand — aren’t here. And no repetitious shots of Mary’s sex life or her visions of bloody eyes, bloody nightclothes and bloody hands make up for it.
This “Nightmare” all but put me right to sleep.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sex and blood
Cast: Alix Wilton Regan, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Philippe Bowgen, Claire Glassford and Lee Garrett.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nora Unkel. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:31