You probably knew this was coming to a theater near you, but you probably won’t notice as The Last Voyage of the Demeter departs theaters like a ghost ship into the fog of obscurity. I saw it, admittedly not right away, hoping it would deliver a unique take on the source material and on its premise – Alien/The Thing on a Victorian schooner.
It certainly is that, and much the same, the film works as a throwback to Hammer horror and early 2000s supernatural thrillers that shot for a PG-13 rating. However, while I had a remote hope I was missing out on something special that deserved more attention, unfortunately, that’s not the case albeit they put in some effort.
A Plot to Sink Your Teeth Into
Last Voyage of the Demeter is based on a section of Bram Stoker’s world-renowned novel known as “The Log of the Demeter” that fills in some of the blanks in Dracula’s journey from Transylvania to England. In the book, the story is sparse and requires some development which is what the film endeavors to do while taking creative license.
Docked in port in the Black Sea off Romania, the title vessel in search of crew hauls cargo brought in by carriage from old Walachia. Among its parcels is a crate with a dragon symbol on it that freaks out locals who all want to make it home before dark. You can certainly guess how all that fits together unlike the woe-begotten sailors.
A doctor named Clemens (Corey Hawkins) with nowhere else to go finds himself a place on deck beside them. As one of the first men of color to graduate from Oxford with a medical degree, Clemens is a man of science who is about to see everything he believes challenged by the greatest evil known to man – a devil called Dracula.
Atmosphere and creature design are something to recommend about The Last Voyage. Looking like a cross between Max Schreck in Nosferatu and the man-bat form played by Gary Oldman, and seen sparingly in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire Count (Javier Botet) is in full beast mode that at times, resembles the most unsettling and toothiest of creepypasta art.
The trouble is he is a monster without much trace of humanity. This might boil down to intent with interpretation or playing to the strengths of actor Javier Botet who has portrayed grotesque lanky creatures since the REC movies. A logical move, however, it defangs Dracula in a big way by depriving him of one of his advantages.
When he can assume a human form and walk among us, Dracula is always more interesting even as he functions weirdly in society. From Lugosi to Christopher Lee and Oldman, he was continuously a man and a monster, and you could understand his motivations and his machinations more deeply. Manipulating poor, decaying Renfield and others always made him creepier.
A Director Who Tells Stories In the Dark
Here, the Count sticks to the standard jump scares and slashing but doesn’t shed a lot of blood. The red stuff is there, just minimally. It’s an odd choice, though not an unexpected one, by director André Øvredal – a guy known more for his atmosphere and storytelling than gore. He can provide the latter, but it’s never overpowering.
As with Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark and The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Øvredal gives us a strange foreboding setup and lays into the shadowy darkness of isolation and claustrophobic corridors. He perfectly captures the look of the period and the tempest of the sea, but building tension ranks from hard to impossible when you know where the story is going.
This is a two-fold problem due to overfamiliarity with the tropes of the “beast on the loose in a small location” subgenre and the source material. Alien has been ripped off many times and Dracula has been readapted for the screen many more times than that – enough for formula fatigue to take root on both counts.
Leak In the Boat
New things are tried, but they aren’t terribly groundbreaking. Case in point, putting Corey Hawkins in the lead to tell a commonly revisited story out of olden times from the perspective of a marginalized person is nothing new at all. Still, Hawkins does a good job here and makes me feel for Clemens and his situation.
There is a degree of historical accuracy to the character. By that time, black men had attended and graduated from Oxford and Cambridge except not with medical degrees. That would take another decade or two, but Clemens’ struggle as an outsider is palpable and believable enough as a reason to bring him aboard the Demeter.
He becomes an important character, but things get a little unwieldy by the climax as an ambiguous race swap is pulled in sequel bait that goes nowhere (spoiler). Making it to London, Clemens explains through voice-over he’s embracing the mission to hunt and kill Dracula. I don’t know if that means he’s the new Van Helsing or a potential ally or what.
We might never receive an answer and likely don’t have to worry about this bit of worldbuilding.
Øvredal puts together a fine-looking film. It’s framed tightly, the make-up is convincing, and the camera gets some nice shots. The Last Voyage of the Demeter’s cast is also in fine form, but my attention lapsed periodically, which sucked when the film seemed to do everything it could to grab me. I guess subliminally I was picking up on the formulaic factor.
Truly, it suffers from that and being the second Dracula movie to come out this year – with next to none of the promotion the other one had. Universal must not have believed in it since they had the script in turnaround for years before production got rolling. Maybe if they had released it years ago, a splash could’ve been made.
- Creature design is really good
- Corey Hawkins and Liam Cunningham are good in their parts
- Period setting and set design are on point
- In space, under the sea - you've seen it done before in ways that delightfully played with the formula
- Dracula is more of a 2D monster here, lacking depth