THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER ˝
2023, R, 118 mins
Corey Hawkins as Clemens / Aisling Franciosi as Anna / Liam Cunningham as Captain Eliot / David Dastmalchian as Wojchek / Chris Walley as Abrams / Stefan Kapičić as Olgaren / Martin Furulund as Larsen / Nikolai Nikolaeff as Petrofsky / Woody Norman as Toby / Jon Jon Briones as Cook / Javier Botet as Dracula / NosferatuDirected by André Řvredal / Written by Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz, based on the literary work of Bram Stoker
I perhaps don't have enough fingers and toes to count the number of films featuring Dracula that have come out in my lifetime. Bram Stoker's 19th Century literary creation has seen so many cinematic permutations that it leaves each new one coming out in an unenviable position to either up the ante or find a new fresh prerogative for the material.
We received a heavily comedic (and novel) take earlier this year in RENFIELD (which showcased the iconic bloodsucker, but was told from his minion's perspective). Now we have THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, which utilizes a fiendishly clever take on this character. Instead of fully adapting Stoker's 1897 novel, director Andre Ovredal opts to cover just one of the book's chapters (just 16 pages out of the total 400) and involves Dracula wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting crew during an oceanic voyage from Transylvania to London. What initially seems like a piece of stunt filmmaking emerges as a superbly engineered and daringly original appropriation of the Dracula mythos. On top of that, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER is thoroughly intense, richly atmospheric, and a genuinely unsettling single-location horror thriller.
I admire the sheer nerve and ambition of this film's approach. I often bemoan when feature film adaptations of relatively short novels are self-indulgently long, but Ovredal's film is nearly two hours and covers a single chapter in a novel. It could be argued that THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER is perhaps anti-climatic, seeing as, yes, we all know that this nocturnal monster did make it to England and left a trail of dead bodies behind him. Past films have barely covered this sea voyage passage of the novel, and even when they did (like in Francis Ford Coppola's celebrated 1991 iteration), it was handled via an expressionistic and nightmarish fever dream montage. Ovredal and his team were obviously inspired by films like the original ALIEN, which bares a remarkably similar premise, albeit it was set in space and the ship's crew had to defend themselves from an unstoppable extraterrestrial entity. Regardless, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER forges its own unique and creepy identity. That, and it treats the Dracula character itself as less of a doomed and sympathetically cursed character and more as a soulless mass-murdering beast with a ravenous bloodlust. This movie emphasizes the monster in monster movie.
The Demeter of the film's title is the name of the aforementioned vessel, overseen by Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham), and as the film opens, it's about to depart from Transylvania and to Carfax Abbey in London...but with some mysterious boarded-up cargo of unknown origin. Joining Elliot are his grandson, Toby (Woody Norman) and first mate, Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), as well as a motley crew that has some misgivings about the long journey to come (and the spooky nature of what's in their cargo hold). One man that is recruited (rather unluckily) for the trip is a young doctor, Clemens (Corey Hawkins), who is given a job by Elliot after saving Toby's life in a nearly fatal dock accident. His medical know-how gets utilized very quickly when it's shockingly discovered that in one of the many boxes of dirt emerges a stowaway (Aisling Franciosi), who seems to have a disease of unknown origin, but is kept alive by Clemens performing multiple blood transfusions. Then...strange things start happening on the ship that builds to mass alarm and panic in all of the crew. First, all of the livestock gets brutally killed (via what looks like teeth marks not made by man). Secondly, Elliot's men start getting picked off one by one in the same fashion. When the stowaway gains consciousness, she reveals the real culprit of this horrible turn of events.
Again, what makes THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER so enthralling - outside of its unique handling of established Stoker lore - is that it treats Dracula in a less romanticized and eroticized light (which was so paramount in past iterations). There's nothing inherently wrong with a sensual undercurrent to those films at all (Coppola's version is bathed in it), but I liked that it's completely jettisoned here. Instead, we get a Dracula that's more of a bat-like demon than a well-dressed and mannered man, and one that sinisterly lurks in the shadows and corners of the Demeter and springs on his prey when they least suspect it. This Dracula is also not of the disarmingly charming variety of the Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, or Gary Oldman versions. This one is a purely evil animal made of wings and teeth. The film more than earns its hard-R rating when it comes to its grizzly slaughter, and Ovredal deserves credit for subverting our expectations (especially in one crucial and cruel moment) about who will be murdered and who will be spared.
I think that this also lends to the sometimes hard to bare claustrophobic tension that Ovredal is able to thanklessly drum up throughout the film. THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER has its fair share of shock jump scares, to be sure, but it's more interested in generating an undulating sensation of dread, paranoia, and unease with its frightened characters. Like ALIEN before it, the crew here are trapped within the tiny confines of their vessel and without any safe exit strategy. Plus, they have to face a predator with no apparent weak points. The slick and consummate practical production values (which have obviously been augmented by CGI to some degree) ground everything in an ominous verisimilitude, and the bleak and oppressive cinematography by Roman Osin and Tom Stern helps to fuel this (alongside a chilling, but not bombastic music score by Bear McCready). Overall, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER cost a relatively miniscule $40 million, but the end results make the film look like it cost two to three times as much. Not only do the seafaring scenes (especially the ones involving the Demeter leaving port) look utterly convincing, but the cat and mouse games of survival on board later (that makes up a majority of the remainder of the story) have a moody and hauntingly beautiful edge to them. This is a rare horror film that places prominence on fostering suspense versus throwing mindless gore and violence on screen.
It's also great too that this film doesn't completely lose sight of its human element either, and the script by Bragi F. Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz takes its time with character introductions, motivations, and establishing arcs and dynamics to come. I liked Cunningham as his dogmatic captain who has a great deal of difficulty seeing supernatural forces at play on his ship until it's too late. Hawkins is also a stalwart stand-out as his doctor, who also struggles (in his own unique way) to rationalize that perhaps science can't explain what's happening on the vessel. The performances are all routinely on point and the screenplay tries to not make them cardboard cutout victims that are being ruthlessly served up to Dracula's vengeance. THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER falters a bit in the writing department when it comes to sticking to a satisfying ending. Of course, we kind of all know how this film ends based on "The Captain's Log" chapter of Stoker's book, but this film goes on a bit too long in its final sections and engages (as way, way too many genre efforts do these days) to set up a sequel-baiting final scene that really doesn't compliment what has come before. Why can't modern films just be content to have a beginning, middle, and end and be wonderfully self-contained entities?
Still, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER represents the kind of sensationally effective and impressively mounted mid-budget creature feature that seems all but extinct now in our contemporary era of massive $200 million-costing tentpole blockbusters that are riddled with CG overkill in every portion of the frame. There's a wonderful old school polish and thrilling no-nonsense execution to Ovredal's scarefest that serves it quite well, and as a thoroughly different angle on one of the most portrayed characters in all of fiction, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER deserves high praise for its outside of the box thinking. As far as late summer film season offerings go, this is most assuredly a diamond in the rough. Beyond that, 2023 has now brought us two Dracula-centered films that could be no more diametrically opposed to one another, but both demonstrate that you can have fun and be smart in playing different kinds of games within the same genre sandbox.