“Where the hell did you come from?”
When you consider just how many films have been made about Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula”, I’m surprised it has taken this long to get a film like The Last Voyage of the Demeter. I’m not a huge fan of the novel, but the chapter that centers around Dracula’s voyage from Carpathia to London is a section that I always enjoyed. It’s a chapter told through journal entries from the captain of the ship and how the crew is killed one by one by a mysterious menace aboard the ship. In the movies that have come before, this moment of the film is usually mentioned as an afterthought or simply gets a couple minutes of screen time. So is this the fresh take on the beloved horror icon that cinema-goers have been waiting for, or is this just a lame attempt to revive the vampire genre?
The Demeter sets off from a port in Bulgaria where a crew has been commissioned to travel to England with a special cargo being loaded onto the ship. Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) helms the ship, and he plans on retiring after this voyage and letting his first mate Wojcheck (David Dastmalchian) take his place, but first they have to get this trip out of the way. In port they hire crew to help load the vessel and man the ship, but upon seeing crates with a black dragon logo, this is enough to scare off some members of the crew, and that’s where Clemens (Corey Hawkins) comes in as a last minute ship-hand and doctor. Early on we get a moment where we see Clemens discuss how he is a man of science and how he wants to be able to explain things; no surprise here on how his beliefs are going to later be pushed when dealing with a supernatural creature that’s aboard their ship.
The film does have a bit of a slow start. As expected, the first act is mostly about getting to know the ship and all the members of the crew. Toby (Woody Norman) tends to the livestock aboard the Demeter and is also the Captain’s grandson. He is a likeable kid who shows Clemons around and helps set things up, like how sound travels on the ship through a series of knocks. Really, it is no surprise how this will come in to play later in the film. Things do pick up when it is discovered that all the livestock has been killed and we meet Anna (Aisling Franciosi), a woman who is found near death inside a box filled with dirt. Clemons tends to the ailing woman whom the crew is immediately suspicious of and we later find out has a unique connection to the strange events occurring aboard the ship.
Whether you’ve read Bram Stoker’s book or not really shouldn’t matter. Just know that you are going into a vampire film. But this is by no means your typical vampire film, either. Crosses do very little to protect the crew, and their weapons are very limited. This film thrives on tension and the fear of what lurks beyond the shadows and in the darkness. Now for those who have read the book and are familiar with Chapter 7, this still does manage to deliver some surprises along the way.
Director Andre Ovredal has described his film as Alien on a ship, and to be honest, that really is what we get with The Last Voyage of the Demeter. This is one of the rare films that delivers on that claustrophobic atmosphere. In the daytime we see the crew of the Demeter is safe, but there is nowhere to go since they are surrounded by ocean … but it is the nighttime where this film shines. It’s not just dark; most of the time the crew is also dealing with storms on the high sea and fog that makes it nearly impossible to see beyond a few feet. Dracula uses the darkness to hunt and prey, and just about every appearance is devilish and creepy. The design of this Dracula is fantastic, and beneath the latex is legendary creature performer Javier Botet, who is probably best known for his work as the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2 and as Mama in Mama. Then there is the excellent score by Bear McCreary, which is brooding with tension.
The film in many ways is quite simple and to the point, but where it delivers is with the scares and well written characters. We’re at a strange time in cinema where some films struggle at the box office, but consistently horror has proven to be a financially successful genre for the studios. The past couple years have also delivered some pretty entertaining horror films, and as a fan of the genre, it has made me pretty happy. I’m curious to see how this will fare at the box office with “another” Dracula film this year. Universal seems to be doubling down this year with reviving the classic character. Earlier this year we had the release of Renfield, which was a more humorous take on the icon with Nicolas Cage in the role of Dracula. While I enjoyed Renfield, I don’t think anyone actually felt that Cage’s performance was terrifying at all. I’m all for a horror comedy, but it has been a while since we’ve gotten a vampire that was genuinely creepy and something to be afraid of. The Last Voyage of the Demeter is the game-changer to the character and the sub-genre we’ve needed. This isn’t a film about a vampire stuck in his castle crying over his lost love; this isn’t a gothic romance at all. The Dracula we get this time around is the monster that hunts at night and cares only about survival. This isn’t Bela Lugosi with his cape or even Gary Oldman in his posh attire; no, this is a terrifying creature that is closer to being a more hideous take on Nosferatu with claws, fangs, and serpentine wings along with his unquenchable taste for blood.