The Last Voyage of the Demeter

The Last Voyage of the Demeter

2023, R, 119 min. Directed by André Øvredal. Starring Corey Hawkins, Aisling Franciosi, Woody Norman, Liam Cunningham, Javier Botet, David Dastmalchian.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 11, 2023

Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania. His vision of the shadow-shrouded realm of Dracula was born in the British coastal town of Whitby: It was while living there in the 1890s that the author first read of the cruel history of Vlad Tepes – more fearfully known as Vlad the Impaler – in a copy of William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia that he borrowed from the local library. Sit on the clifftops where he spent his days, and you’ll see the ruins of St. Mary’s Church, the inspiration behind Dracula’s Carfax Abbey. And it was also here where he heard fisherman tell stories of the Dimitry of Narva, a Russian brigantine that wrecked on the shores beneath the rising cliffs.

The whole crew of the Dimitry was saved, but not so the stout seaman of the Demeter, the doomed and damned ship inspired by the disaster in Stoker’s 1897 masterpiece of horror, Dracula. The eerie slaughter of the crew is captured in just over a page of the much longer Chapter 7 (“Cutting from 'The Dailygraph,' 8 August, Pasted in Mina Murray's Journal”), in which the unnamed captain of the Demeter records 17 entries in his log between July 6, when the ship left Varna, and August 4, four days before the empty ship crashed into British shore, bringing the butcherous vampire Count Dracula with it.

Those few paragraphs stand as one of the greatest achievements in horror literature, a perfect descent into gothic terror. And so it’s very understandable that efforts to turn that slight selection into a movie have taken decades and a long list of writers and directors attempting to extend its elegant brevity into a full feature. Finally, The Last Voyage of the Demeter makes that ill-fated journey, with a script by Bragi F. Schut Jr. (Escape Room), who has been on the project for 20 years, and current Hollywood hot talent Zak Olkewicz (Bullet Train).

Schut Jr. has been open about how much he was inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and also that he wanted to create Alien on a boat. But the crew of the Demeter never seems as rough-hewn and convincing as the blue-collar conceit of the sci-fi shocker required: The Nostromo’s personnel came across as working-class schlubs, while Last Voyage is basically disinterested in the men of the Demeter, instead focusing on Romani stowaway Anna (Franciosi, The Nightingale) and a Black English doctor, Clemens (Hawkins, In the Heights, The Tragedy of Macbeth). Along with Toby (Norman, C'mon C'mon), the cabin boy and wide-eyed young grandson of the captain (Cunningham, The Guard, Game of Thrones), Schut and Olkewicz center the script on them rather than the salty sea dogs.

Fortunately, the script ends up in the hands of André Øvredal, a filmmaker with a grasp of both the gothic and the gray cruelty of the high seas. The director of Trollhunter proved that he’s prepared to test expectations of multiplex-friendly horror with the PG-13-pushing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. He’s also shown a real flair for impactful gore in The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and he's also proven his skill with a bleak and uncomfortable ending with Mortal, his attempt to grab back Thor for Norway from Marvel. And that’s the problem for The Voyage of the Demeter. In the book, there are no survivors, and so the question throughout is whether the film will have the guts to commit to what Stoker wrote. The journey becomes a body count countdown with an impossible resolution: Either everyone dies and it’s a miserable ending, or someone lives and Stoker’s story is betrayed.

Øvredal does his best to thread that canvas needle, and for his biggest film to date he undoubtedly scales up as a director. He perfects the mood of enigmatic doom and brine-soaked terror required before accelerating into horrifying violence. This is Dracula as a predator, the way he should be (not a sighing, ruffle-shirted sex symbol), and go-to monster actor Javier Botet (the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2, the Big Toe Corpse from Scary Stories, Niña Medeiros from the [Rec] films and many, many more) keeps that sense of vile menace – even if Drac's facial design draws heavily on that of the vampires for the 1979 TV miniseries of Salem's Lot.

But as much as Øvredal tries to evade all the modern blockbuster conventions that are bound to keep the Demeter from its best destination, it’s too bumpy a journey to ever feel quite on course. Wobbly accents (most especially Hawkins' dismal Mockney, although Dastmalchian's vaguely Eastern European mumble is often grating) match the wobbly mood switches, as The Last Voyage of the Demeter tacks awkwardly between suitably grisly and dour horror, and a glossier, more predictable summer crowd-pleaser.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

The Last Voyage of the Demeter, André Øvredal, Corey Hawkins, Aisling Franciosi, Woody Norman, Liam Cunningham, Javier Botet, David Dastmalchian

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