Few novels have been adapted as many times as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even fewer novels have had their creative gestation dramatized so many times. Auteurs like Ken Russell and Ivan Passer have envisioned the notorious scary story challenge at Lake Geneva and Hugh Grant played Lord Byron in a film you never heard of (but that is where he met Elizabeth Hurley). Plus, it duly appears in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s bio-pic, Mary Shelley. It is time for another summer by the lake when Nora Unkel leans into the horror elements of Shelley’s Frankenstein in A Nightmare Wakes, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.
Mary Wollstonecraft is not yet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She is only his mistress. Nobody is more conscious of this fact than her, especially since she is pregnant with his child. The idea is to spend a restful season by Lake Geneva, but their neighbor Lord Byron is not exactly an easy-going host. Nevertheless, Wollstonecraft’s step-sister Claire Clairmont is quite interested in him, despite the obvious peril to her reputation. As any horror fan worth their salt knows, Byron challenges his guests to compose a scary story one dark and stormy night. He and Shelley soon moved on to other hedonistic pursuits, but Wollstonecraft and Dr. Jonathan Polidori followed through, writing Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus and The Vampyre, respectively.
A Nightmare Wakes is somewhat stylistically akin to Russell’s Gothic, mixing the romantic poets’ boozy revelry with nightmarish imagery, but it is nowhere near as trippy. Unkel takes the psychological symbolism deeper, suggesting Wollstonecraft saw herself as the spurned monster-creation and Shelley as its neglectful creator. It seems like a reasonably defensible reading, given the dysfunction and co-dependency of their relationship. Hower, Unkel does not merely present the “Byronesque” Dr. Frankenstein as Shelley’s fictional analog. He becomes the poet’s doppelganger.
These sequences are quite creepy and satisfying for fans of Frankenstein and the various Lake Geneva genesis movies, but they are also a bit confusing. Poor Polidori is once again mostly relegated to the sidelines and this time even dissolute Byron only pays a minor role in the story (albeit a rude and self-indulgent one). However, this time around, Claire Glassford nicely humanizes her namesake Clairmont, who, as unlikely as it might sound, comes across as the more responsible step-sister.
Mary Shelley. Giullian Yao Gioiello clearly delineates the weak, self-centered Shelley and his Frankenstein doppelganger, but (perhaps intentionally and appropriately) the latter is much more interesting than the former.
Nightmare Wakes often feels like a feminist response to Russell’s Gothic, especially its puritan contempt for the Romantics’ sexual indulgences. There is blood and gore, but Unkel’s direction still feels oddly restrained. It is smart, literate, and highly neurotic. Recommended more for literary critics than Frankenstein fans, A Nightmare Wakes starts streaming tomorrow (2/4), on Shudder.