Some ideas just stand out when it comes to cinematic potential. Regardless of the long road to bringing The Last Voyage of the Demeter to the big screen, the concept has always been neat. Adapting a key chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and expanding it into a horror production is an inspired proposition that provides a challenge in how to hold onto narrative urgency for a film with an inevitable ending. Fortunately, director André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Trollhunter) finds enough to work with in a movie that feels just large enough in scale to help audiences look past some of its shortcomings. For a unique Dracula story, this ship does sail.
As noted, the plot of this film is inspired by “The Captain’s Log” chapter of Dracula. As many at least somewhat familiar with the classic story know, Dracula eventually must travel from Transylvania to London. He does so by ship (the Demeter), unbeknownst to the crew. However, the audience gets time to learn all about this crew. Specifically, there’s Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham), his first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), and Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a doctor who is the latest addition. We eventually also meet Anna (Aisling Franciosi), a stowaway with a connection to the secret beast hiding in the shadows below deck.
Øvredal has referred to this film as “What if Alien, but it’s set on a ship in 1897,” and that pretty much sums up what to expect narratively. There may be different agendas in mind between vampires and xenomorphs, but over the course of this movie, each time night falls means Dracula will stalk another victim, drink their blood, and presumably have a bit of fun, as Dracula is, among other things, a rascal. These instances arrive as vicious attacks, with enough blood on display for the audience to understand the brutality involved in what this creature of the night is capable of. Not hurting is seeing the results of what a bit from Dracula has to offer for those who survive this initial interaction.
Smartly, Øvredal may not linger too much on the look of Dracula until the end, and even then, only so much time is spent focusing directly on him. However, the choice has also been made to visually portray the creature as just that – a deadly monster, complete with wings, pale skin, and plenty of animal-like features compared to the more debonair versions many are used to seeing (less Bela Lugosi, more Max Schreck). Javier Botet, a Spanish actor known for his tall, thin build, has portrayed a variety of creatures in films such as Mama, The Conjuring 2, REC, and Crimson Peak. He’s cast well as Dracula, allowing for an original take that emphasizes the character’s monstrous nature. Yet, there’s still some attention paid to creating a bit of personality.
Of course, being a film focusing on the crew of the Demeter, ideally, the work is done to establish an empathetic set of people destined to be slaughtered by the Prince of Darkness. To that extent, there are a few standouts. As the lead, Hawkins does all he can to make Clemens work as a struggling soul gifted with intelligence. It means leaning into what it means to be an educated Black man in 19th-century Europe, which is all well and good, but this is not a film that features much subtlety to make its points. Still, Hawkins is given enough to do what feels appropriate without him becoming an implausible hero, given the circumstances.
Also effective – Dastmalchian, who is now 2 for 2 with Summer 2023 horror movie performances. As the first mate who pines to have his own ship, we are given enough understanding to appreciate his respect for the Captain, desire to complete this trip, and care for his crew. Cunningham also finds his time to shine, being sure not to overdo it in the realm of a dedicated seaman, slowly becoming undone by the notion of something supernatural changing his perspective. Sadly, the rest of the cast can only do so much to stand out, though having a woman and a young boy (Woody Norman) aboard allows heightened stakes (pun totally intended) to emerge when needed.
If anything, Øvredal seems to be fighting the balance of making a Universal Pictures horror adventure and a really vicious Dracula movie fit for an international director. While the film earns its R-rating, it’s not as though Dracula couldn’t have caused even more mayhem aboard the Demeter. There are at least two instances where this film really lays its cards on the table to show what kind of heinous actions our deadly vampire king is capable of. Yet, the reliance on rainy nights and appearing from out of the shadows occurs with a lot of frequency, bordering on the film being too repetitive. It’s as if taking a more nihilistic approach was vetoed along the way, and the attempt to counter it with big moments of acting, music, and more were utilized in a careful manner to serve as a cross between a studio film and a Hammer Horror throwback.
Given how often audiences have seen over-the-top Dracula movies over the years, it’s not as though making it all feel larger than life would have been too much to handle. As it stands, genuine tension and mood is effectively built quite often, but delivering true jolts, scares, or otherwise only has so much of an impact. It comes down to the amount of time we must spend on this ship (the movie runs nearly two hours) and what we’re supposed to take away from a scenario that should be treated like a no-win, even though the film wants us to believe these shipmates have a fighting chance.
This all may make it sound as though The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a mixed affair, but I found it mostly successful in communicating its atmosphere and delivering a strong sense of the threat that is Dracula. It’s also a good-looking production with the sort of cast that’s not reliant on movie star strength to necessarily spell out how things will play out. Plus, for a film featuring lots of death and sensibilities of characters fit for those living at this point in history, it’s a lot of bloody fun. As a gloomy yet entertaining vampire movie that focuses on a critical point in the journey of Dracula, I was mostly pleased lurking around the mist and shadows of this doomed voyage.