Horror cinema can’t let a good thing lie—it’s consumed with picking every bit of meat off a successful monster’s bones via sequels, prequels, remakes, and other mythology-expanding means. Such endeavors rarely pan out, much less best their predecessors, since there’s no need to additionally explain and inflate that which was already creepy. Scariness is routinely generated via the act of withholding; there’s nothing more unsettling than what is unknown and unseen. Give audiences too much, and mystery—and terror—dissipates.
All of which brings us to The Last Voyage of the Demeter (in theaters August 11), a feature-length adaptation of one chapter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula that details—from the captain’s perspective, courtesy of his logbook—the fateful oceanic journey of the Demeter. A cargo ship traveling from Romania to England with a handful of crewmen and a collection of boxes, it’s beset in Stoker’s classic novel by the iconic vampire, who’s snuck aboard in a crate in order to reach London.
In a few short pages, the captain’s entries devolve from confident to curious to catastrophically fatalistic as, one by one, his charges fall prey to an enigmatic figure spied at night. Like the entire novel, the passage is a masterclass in first-hand suspense and dread, all of which is conjured not by unholy screams and copious bloodshed but, rather, by glimpses of the unreal, escalating paranoia and hysteria, and an overarching sense that everyone’s final destination is doom.
Whereas Stoker’s interlude is compact and chilling, The Last Voyage of the Demeter is bloated and banal. Various artists have attempted to bring this tale to the screen over the past 20 years, and though director André Øvredal has thus triumphed where they failed, the end result suggests that it was a project best left unrealized. Whether hewing to the letter of Stoker’s source material or branching off in novel directions, this B-movie distends itself without purpose, and frequently in ways that, in light of what we know about the rest of Dracula’s legend (both before and after these events), make little sense.
Following a prologue in which the Demeter runs ashore in Whitby with no surviving individuals aboard, The Last Voyage of the Demeter flashes back four weeks to detail the beginning of its trek. At a Bulgarian port, Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) and his first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) load their craft with cargo and search for three new hires to round out their crew. Despite their reservations, they agree to take Clemens (Corey Hawkins) after he saves the Captain’s grandson Toby (Woody Norman) from being crushed by a crate decorated with a dragon emblem—“the devil’s serpent,” according to one frightened seaman. Clemens has no sailing experience but he’s a doctor and man of science, and as he later explains, he believes in reason and yearns to understand a world that habitually defies logic.
His convictions are put to the test once the Demeter heads out into open water and strange occurrences become the norm. The first of those involves the discovery of Anna (Aisling Franciosi), a young girl whom everyone assumes is a stowaway and some view as a sign of bad luck. Clemens is most concerned with the fact that Anna is gravely ill with a baffling infection, and he sets about treating it by giving her personal blood transfusions. Luckily for them both, this turns out to be just what she needs, given that Anna didn’t sneak onto the Demeter—she was put there by the ferocious fiend who emerges nightly from his hold.
Dracula (Javier Botet) begins by slaughtering the ship’s livestock and Toby’s dog and, once that food supply runs dry, he turns to his available human prey, none of whom are prepared to deal with a giant winged beast that moves at lightning speed, has a mouthful of razor-sharp fangs, and can fly. With each successive meal, Dracula regains more of his strength, and director Øvredal makes sure to provide plenty of glimpses of his baddie amidst the foggy gloom and lightning-peppered thunderstorms that envelop the boat.
Deviating from Stoker’s novel, in which the captain describes his deadly passenger as “a tall, thin man,” The Last Voyage of the Demeter envisions its famous villain as a grotesque creature of the night—bald, nude, toothy, shrieky, and with a man-bat body that would never properly fit into a dapper suit. The film doesn’t imply that this is one of the character’s numerous forms; on the contrary, it casts him as merely an ungodly animal. Consequently, it’s a reductive Dracula that stalks the Demeter.
It must be said that no one else in The Last Voyage of the Demeter is multifaceted: Clemens is the rational hero; Captain Elliot and cook Joseph (Jon Jon Briones) are religious men; Wojchek is a grumpy veteran who distrusts Clemens; and the rest are simply blood bags for the Count. More frustrating, Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz’s script fails to deliver an exciting scenario or nerve-rattling jolt. Everything is telegraphed obviously and staged with minimal flair, so that any hope for neck-biting extravagance is quickly squashed. If unwilling to go over the top, the proceedings are also uninterested in compelling authenticity—that no one’s hair or beard moves in the wind, even as shirts billow and the waves crash, is almost as big a question mark as Dracula’s existence.
As befitting a work of modern-day revisionism, The Last Voyage of the Demeter makes time to have Clemens rail against racism and to cast Anna as an oppressed woman determined to seize her feminist agency. Such nods are shoehorned in with all the grace and subtlety of the film’s set pieces, which culminate with a dim-witted finale that eschews the very calamitous despondence that defines its story. So radically do Øvredal, Schut Jr. and Olkewicz ultimately rewrite their saga that it’s difficult to know whether to laugh in disbelief or weep in dismay. What is inescapable, however, is that this late-summer detritus is further proof that, no matter how illogical it might be, Hollywood can’t resist a happy ending that sets up a potential franchise.
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