Disclaimer: This film was reviewed during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. And films like these would not exist without the hard work of the actors and writers.
The story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula has sunken its fangs into pop culture since 1897, and his form has evolved throughout the years since his debut. He could be the blood-thirsty charming undead lord or a toxic boss. Whatever the case, the many different iterations and adaptations that exist are a testament to the character’s longevity. But rather than create something contemporary, André Øvredal’s “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” takes a novel approach to Stoker’s story by leafing through the final pages of a captain’s log of the doomed ship.
The film opens up towards what appears to be the end, with a constable and his officers searching the remains of the Demeter which has washed up on the shores of England. It’s a dark and stormy night, and no one knows what went wrong until one of the officers shows up and hands the constable the captain’s log. It’s filled with pages of ominous warnings that there was an evil on board and if the book some how survives anyone who reads it should heed its warning.
Flashing back to a few weeks ago, we are introduced to Clemons (Corey Hawkins), a promising doctor with a Cambridge education who wants to get back to England because he couldn’t find a job in Romania because of the color of his skin. He knows how to read stars and read waters, which would make him the ideal candidate for any ship. Alas, First mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) rejects him because he is looking for more brawns than brain. But when one of the shipmates he picks suddenly has second thoughts about the voyage because of one of the crates devilish markings, the crate drops over Toby’s head (Woody Norman). Luckily, Clemons is there to save him. And the ship’s captain (Liam Cunningham) takes notice, and asks Wojchek to be a part of the crew.
Eventually, the doomed ship sets sail with the crew, not knowing what they’ve brought aboard. Having not inspected or even secured the cargo properly, one rogue wave breaks a crate and that’s where Clemons finds Anna (Aisling Franciosi). As a doctor, Clemons is obliged to save her life by giving her blood transfusions. However, the other crew members see this as a bad omen. Especially when she as mysterious wounds. And since this film started at the end, we have to assume that whatever created those wounds is also aboard this ship, just waiting to feast on the flesh of the other shipmates.
Given that “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” has a two hour runtime, it takes its time not only with establishing Dracula as a threat but with its kills as well. Much of the film takes place below deck, where it’s dark and gloomy. The ship that was once infested with rats has suddenly gone silent. And the livestock that was caged has been savagedly torn apart. Unfortunately, if you are a dog lover, you won’t like what happens to Huckleberry. But a vampire has got to live, and with the way that Tom Stern and Roman Osin worked in unison to hide the demon was pretty clever. First-person perspectives offer a glimpse of the fear that each of the characters felt, hiding Dracula out of the frame and offers a few well-placed jump scares. The wider shots reveal a more worrying sequence as Dracula sets his sights on his next victim without any of them knowing it. And Javier Botet does a fantastic job as the creature actor in the film, who starts off as a weak and frightened animal hiding in the shadows but eventually gains enough strength with every new kill. And because the ship is so massive, there are plenty of places for him to hide and lurk.
The kill moments are effective as it utilizes its surrounding environment, The old creaky ship, the sounds of pounding a fist against the wood, and the dark and stormy nights are enough to scare anyone. However, as soon as it reaches its midway point where the crew realizes what’s aboard their ship, the winds are taken out of its sails and it quickly becomes adrift. Because we already know all of their fates, we just have to assume they’ll all die some horrific death. It’s only a matter of time before they become Dracula’s next meal. And because they’re all greedy, if they make port earlier than expected, they don’t get paid.
So, the characters are stuck aboard this ship, and even though their numbers are dwindling, they still refuse to leave. This makes every one of their efforts to capture Dracula pointless because they know what the vampire is capable of when he is scuttling about the ship. Just imagine what would happen if he grew wings. The presence of Dracula is scary, sure, but we can’t take him seriously when there is too much of him. The film tries to make our villain out to be something that is weak and eventually grows into a terrifying god that we should all fear. And sure, hiding within the shadows as something that is frail at first glance is offputting. And he grows into something scary sure. But it’s an evolution of a frighting classic monster that doesn’t quite hit those scares because with every new kill, the cringy effectiveness of the grow dwindles. The kills or the jump scares aren’t nearly as scary because we are now expecting them to come.
And for the most part, the kill order seemed rather weird. Characters that we care about become the victims sooner than expected, and those who we thought would die last longer than they should. Even so, we aren’t exactly given the chance to get to know any of them or mourn their loss. Any attempts to do so are rather flimsy. Some of the characters mention the hopes of seeing their family again, but only after everything has gone afoul. Before any of that, they talked about what they would spend their pay on, which was to feed their avarice or lechery.
For what it’s worth, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” could have benefited from some trimming and better editing. The acting is there. Hawkins, Dastmalchian, and Botet are clearly the stars of the show. But the film stretches itself too far thin and attempts to fill its time in between each of the scary kills with pointless plan hatchery. As such, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” reads better on paper than it looks on film.
In theaters August 11, 2023.