“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 of 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 let 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 into 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 of whom the crew is immediately suspicious, and we later find out she 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 day time 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 night time 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.
The Last Voyage of The Demeter is presented in the aspect ratio 2.39:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 30 mbps. I’m so glad to have gotten to see this on Blu-ray. The presentation of this film at the theater where we had the theatrical screening was a huge disservice to the film. Most of this film takes place at night or in the dark cargo hold of the ship. The detail we get with the creature in the fog, or when he’s prowling aboard the ship during a storm looks beautiful. The flames of the lantern and their glow, the detail with the wounds, and the textures of the ship — it all looks great. Atmosphere is 90% of what makes this film work so well, and a lot of that is with the visuals. Sure, some of the CGI is a bit obvious, but it doesn’t take you out of the film. The shadow separation looks great; no artifacts, just deep blacks that look stunning here.
The Dolby Atmos audio mix is really on point. The movement of the ship, the unsettling knocks and how they echo the length of the ship, the sound design really works well at immersing the viewer on the ship and letting you feel that the creature could be anywhere. The wings flapping in the fog in particular stood out to me.
Commentary with Director Andre Ovredal and Producer Bradley J. Fischer: this is a track worth checking out , these guys have a lot of passion for this project, and they have a lot of information about what went into making the film, and they keep things interesting when discussing making a film during the time of COVID.
Alternate Opening: This isn’t a bad way to start the film. The effects are not complete here, but it’s mostly the same as the film, but with more of an investigation on the ship showing that there was a conflict before it crashed ashore. Basically it gives too much away, in my opinion.
Deleted Scenes: (11:49) There are eight scenes, and there is a Play All option. Some of these get spoilery, so I won’t say much. Honestly, I wish they all stayed in. There are some scenes that involve Clemons and him collecting rocks. As the scenes progress and when understand the meaning behind it, I like the added layer this gave his character, but I understand for timing and tone why these would be cut. Then there is a scene involving the cargo … this should have stayed. It’s brief and fills in some answers people may have had about the dirt.
From the Pits of Hell: Dracula Reimagined: (7:11) This is a cool little bonus about the makeup and design for Dracula and getting to see Javier Botet working BTS to bring the character to life.
Evil is Aboard: The Making of The Last Voyage of The Demeter: (10:44) A BTS look at the locations and sets with interviews with the cast and crew about the making of the film.
Dracula and the Digital Age: (8:34) This is a look behind all the digital effects that went into bringing the film to life, from the violent seas to the creature effects.
After seeing this for a second time, I think I enjoyed it even more. This is the Dracula I want to see, and sure, the film has its obvious nods to Alien, but I’m more than on board with how they executed it with this film. I’m not surprised this wasn’t a big box office success, but I’m confident this will find its audience on disc and streaming. This is perfect for a late night film to get you into the Halloween spirit. This is something different from the typical horror that’s out there, while it definitely feels at home with the Universal horror from the days of B&W. I’m actually curious how this would look in B&W. Maybe that’s something for a future release?