“Never said nothing about dragons!”
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a 2023 Dreamworks picture directed by André Øvredal from a screenplay by Zak Olkewicz and Bragi Schut Jr. Øvredal has made a mark as a director of folk-horror movies starting with 2010’s captivating, charming yet chilling Trollhunter, which is the best found footage film this reviewer has ever seen. The Last Voyage is an ambitious movie, attempting to transplant the tension and terror of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi space-horror film Alien to the claustrophobic setting of a sailing ship on the high seas. It doesn’t quite work.
The film is a retelling of a small section of Bram Stoker’s seminal 1897 novel, Dracula. Stoker’s book is an epistolary novel, a technique where letters, journals or diary entries of the characters provide perspective and propel the plot.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter stars Liam Cunningham, David Dastmalchian, Corey Hawkins, Aisling Franciosi and Woody Norman with Javier Botet as the monster.
There are genuinely creepy moments as well as some over-the-top brutality involving a good amount of gore, body-slashing, head-smashing and blood-spray. The monster’s movements are eerie and unearthly. His sadistic intellect adds to the terror he elicits from the sailors. Sadly, the new dull, slate grey Dracula design is very derivative and leaves much to be desired. However, after one too many blurry shots and scenes of scurrying through shadow, the fully lit reveal is impressive. The last few close-ups make it clear that this terrifying creature is anything but human. Unfortunately, this reviewer couldn’t stop thinking that this version of Dracula looks like what if Max Schreck’s Count Orlock from F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent movie, Nosferatu: a Symphony of Horror and Charles Dance’s Sardo Numspa from Eddie Murphy’s 1986 film, The Golden Child, had an ugly baby.
There are several flaws in the film that are clear nearly from the start. The vampire is playing hide and seek with the crew but not the audience and the monster’s reveal is way too early. The addition of Hawkins, a black man and the female Franciosi to the thinly-written crew of 19th century European sailors is unlikely and distracting. They’re SO out of place and shoehorned in for no apparent benefit to the plot. Hawkins’ character talks about experiencing racism, but given ample opportunity, the film never shows it. Bear McReary’s score is excellent and atmospheric. The weathered tramp schooner, the Demeter has a lot of personality and becomes one of the characters with her groaning yards, booming sail, flickering lamps, laden holds and merry mess tables. As a ship, it looks lived in and believable. As a set, it looks great.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is taken from a part of chapter 7 of Stoker’s book, detailing the contents of an August 8th Dailygraph newspaper report from a correspondent in the seaside town of Whitby. The correspondent describes witnessing a severe storm blowing up out of nowhere, suddenly turning a serene sea savage. Blinding spray, sideways rain and opaque fog fills the air. A schooner abruptly materializes out of the thick mist, running with full sail and barreling towards the harbor. Ignoring all lights and warnings, the ship runs aground on the rocks and splinters the pier. The correspondent as well as some rescuers are first on the scene and see to the crew. They can’t find any. A dead man is lashed to the wheel. No one else is on board the wreck.
The ship is called the Demeter. The correspondent discovers the ship’s log and enters it into his reporting. It is that log and the story therein that the film is entirely based on, detailing the schooner’s doomed four week journey bound for the docks of London from the port of Varna.
“The world cares little of sense, Mr. Clemens.”
It is 1897. The Demeter is taking on cargo in Bulgaria for a run to London.Surgeon Clemens (Hawkins) earns his place on board after saving the Captain’s grandson, Toby (Wood) from a horrible fate. He is grudgingly accepted by the tightly knit crew, but Toby’s enthusiasm for Clemens wins over the affections of the ship’s dog, Huckleberry. Captain Elliot (Cunningham) has plied his trade for many years but has grown weary of the sea. He yearns for home and intends to turn over command of the ship to his able First Mate, Wojchek (Dastmalchian) when they arrive in London. The crew is in high spirits; the cargo they’re carrying, fifty crates stamped with a strange symbol of a winged serpent, comes with a bonus if they can arrive in England early.
One of the crates is dislodged during rough seas and cracks open. Clemens discovers that it’s full of dirt and a nearly-dead girl (Franciosi). He brings her presence to the attention of the captain and first mate, who debate whether to toss her overboard, which is the standard fate for stowaways. Clemens doesn’t think she’s on the ship deliberately and determines that she’s suffering from an infection. He figures if he can nurse her back to health, she can tell them what happened to her. Clemens knows a method of blood transfusion that might allow him to purge her of her ailment, so he gets to it, in spite of the crew’s protests.
The other sailors are apoplectic once they learn a lady is on board. Petrofsky, a surly drunkard of a sailor can’t help but repeat, “Women on the ship, bad omen, bad luck!” He’s right. The next morning, he is found abominably murdered; completely exsanguinated, his is throat torn wide open.
With Clemens busy examining the body, Toby is left to watch the girl while she slowly recovers. He listens to her talking in her sleep. She has horrible nightmares but he’s able to learn a few things. Toby can discern that her name is Anna, and when she wakes, she becomes desperate to get off the Demeter, though they are days from any port. Anna tells them that her villagers betrayed her. Her people made a bargain with a devil (Botet) and she was the price.
Anna shows Clemens lamprey-like bite marks across her back and neck. She tells him that she was kidnapped, taken from her home and put in a box so a monster could make meals of her when nothing else was available. She doesn’t have to wait long for Clemens to realize the Demeter itself is a bigger box and they, the crew mates and sailors are now mere snacks for an ageless, deathless demon that will hunt them down one by one unless they do something.
Can Clemens accept the evidence of his eyes instead of the claims in his books? Can Anna remember any weaknesses they might find in their arcane antagonist? Can they convince Captain Elliot and First Mate Wojchek that there’s a monster in their midst? Can they sail the ship safely with their diminishing numbers? Can they even slow down the devil’s serpent? Can the crew escape, or will the dragon-demon-creature devour them all? See The Last Voyage of the Demeter, if you’re inclined to find out.
“Sometimes, things go wrong, no matter what we promise.”
The Last Voyage of the Demeter Is a collection of mismatched parts. Though it is completely devoid of the tightly bound, barely repressed, Victorian erotic energy found in the source material and many of the earlier adaptations, it has an excellent premise. There are a few good things going for it. The secret hinges on Dracula’s crate are a magnificent idea. The effects work creating the sea-mimicry, sunsets, star-saturated night skies and simulated weather is incredible. There is a particular scene where the ship is encroached by seaborne mist. McReary’s macabre music matches the moment perfectly. The score takes cues from the environment and the environment meshes with the music.
Even though Dracula has already been revealed to be moving freely about the Demeter and even though his being in a certain room at a certain time is thoroughly lampshaded, the spooky beat works and is still a damn disquieting, “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” moment.
The half-vampire, sunlight-sparked, combustion sequences are a mixed bag. The practical burn makeup looks amazing. The full-CG flames, bursting from charring bodies certainly does not. There are a few continuity errors, if you can call them that. Clemons suffers a severe neck wound but it promptly vanishes a scene later. More egregiously, Anna tells the crew what she knows of the monster’s habits and the history she remembers. From their own observations, they can tell it hunts at night. A few scenes earlier, she and Clemens find the special crate containing the creature, though he was apparently on walkabout. Then they and the remainder of the crew concoct an elaborate trap for the beast that revolves around them waiting for him to come out at night through a bottleneck and ambushing him instead of going hunting for the horror during the day, when he is dormant and vulnerable.
Blood transfusions play a part in the 1897 source material, a new science used by the learned and vastly experienced Dr. Van Helsing in his failed attempt to save Lucy Westenra. In the film, though germ theory is in its infancy, Clemens is relatively new at plying his trade and blood types won’t be discovered for another four years, he just happens to have a rig suitable for transfusions handy and is able to pump his blood into Anna night after night. It’s a stretch.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter could’ve been salvaged. In 2023, the film-going audience is sophisticated. They know the rules of a vampire movie even if the characters in the picture don’t. The audience certainly knows about Dracula, but they’re fuzzy on the specific details due to the innumerable adaptations. The source material starts with the wreck and then proceeds to the log purporting to explain the wreck.
The film reflects that structure. It didn’t have to. Most people aren’t going to remember the small part of chapter 7, especially if the studio doesn’t TELL anyone The Last Voyage is a Dracula movie. Dreamworks could’ve played it straight. The story could start from Clemens’ perspective, looking for passage on the docks of Varna. Instead of splashing Dracula all over the promotional materials and the title card of the movie, it could have been a mystery to the audience as to who or what was treating the crew as prey. Alas, as it is, that ship has sailed. The actors are doing the best they can with a wanting and flat script. There are plot-holes and too many structural issues under the waterline to keep this vessel afloat. Unless the viewer is a vampire freak, this one can be saved for streaming.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is in theatres now.
Dracula was created by Bram Stoker.