The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a Creative Dracula Adaptation That Bites Off a Bit More Than It Can Chew
Olivia Rutigliano Grades André Øvredal's New Film on a Curve
The Last Voyage of the Demeter hoists sail underneath an excellent conceit. The film is an adaptation of a single chapter from the 1897 novel Dracula, Chapter VII, which is an account of a ship’s voyage chartered from Varna, Bulgaria to Whitby, England. The novel Dracula is epistolary and this account is the Captain’s Log, which records strange things happening aboard the ship. Crew members start disappearing and the sea grows tempestuous. Sailors begin reporting seeing a strange man in the shadows of the vessel. “God seems to have deserted us,” the Captain writes. By the time the ship reaches its port, everyone is dead.
The sailors do not know that they are transporting Count Dracula from his Carpathian empire to his new English home, but to readers of the novel who have spent the novel’s four opening chapters in Castle Dracula while the Count negotiates the sale of an English estate, it’s evident that he has begun his journey from his ravished homeland to a bountiful new world. The doomed voyage of the Demeter is a logical bridge between these two parts of the novel, but it’s often reduced to a single scene, or even expository shots of a ship leaving Eastern Europe and/or arriving on the shores of England.
It is a very clever idea to zero in on this oft-underrepresented section for two reasons. One, the story suggested by the Demeter‘s log is one of incredible drama and terror, an opportunity to explore what must have been, to that doomed crew, a terrifying and dramatic mystery. Two, the tale of the Demeter is, when you think about it, a standard horror movie: it’s about a group of people who find themselves in a remote location with a powerful evil entity or serial killer (or both) who picks them off one by one.
The film, written by Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz and directed by André Øvredal, is well-versed in its source material, which doesn’t usually technically matter to the quality of a movie but which in this case helps greatly, since this film’s focused relationship to the book is its main selling point; Dracula has been remade so many times that studying the basics feels important for a film that by its very nature promises to burrow into the forgotten details.
That being said, it also takes up a very difficult task: it’s well-known at this point that Dracula does ultimately arrive in England after ravaging the ship and feeding on its crew. It’s quite a challenge to build the necessary rhymes and rhythms of the horror genre when it’s an incontrovertible fact that the entire venture is doomed anyway. It’s hard to get the audience to care about characters who are mere footnotes in the original novel and who literally must die.
For these reasons, I’m grading The Last Voyage of the Demeter on a curve. To make up for all these obstacles, the movie has the good sense to lean into what a horror movie with these restrictions CAN do to move an audience: steep itself in atmosphere and dabble in gore. The film is equal parts rich and nasty, baroque in its rendering both of day-to-day life on a cargo ship in the late 19th century and the carnage that takes place on its final trip.It’s hard to get the audience to care about characters who are mere footnotes in the original novel and who literally must die.
The film takes its time before the scary stuff, allowing the audience to learn about the ship itself, architecturally as well as culturally. Then, when the waters get choppy, the fog rolls in, and the vampire gets loose, the film becomes a shadowy Victorian nightmare. Visually, including in the design of its vampire, the film takes much inspiration from F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu, one of the few Dracula films that captures in great detail the terrors on the ship where the Count (or “Orlock,” as he is named for copyright purposes) has stowed away. One of the film’s most frightening sequences, in which the Count stalks the last of the crew, feels tonally in sync with The Last Voyage of the Demeter, even though they are separated by a century’s worth of filmmaking innovations.
But The Last Voyage of the Demeter‘s Dracula is almost the least satisfying part. He’s not in it so much, and when he is, it’s as a Orlockian, Kurt Barlow-looking goblin. And don’t get me wrong… that’s scary. It’s plenty scary. He’s ugly as hell. But Dracula the guy is the inspiration for 126 years’ worth of entertainment, and he has more of an impact when he’s a suave foreigner than when he’s his skeletal batlike avatar, or at least when he shape-shifts between the two forms.
There are two Dracula films this year—this and Renfield—and both under-use the Count. It’s almost as if these films are scared to, and I get why. He’s one of the most interesting and complicated characters ever created—he’s evil and yet sociable, human and animal, a monster and a gentleman, ubiquitous and omnipotent and yet with many restrictions, invulnerable but with many opportunities for vulnerability. He might literally be the devil. He’s also a feudal landlord from Eastern Europe attempting to fit in busy metropolitan London. That’s a lot to factor in, or even to pick and choose from, when designing a Dracula for your movie. The Last Voyage of the Demeter‘s choice to make him more monster than man works well for the jump scares but also depersonalizes, uncomplicates him as a villain.
But this film is mostly about the crew dealing with an unknown, threatening presence among them—like in Alien (1979). Not to recklessly compare movies, but I’d say that this doesn’t work as well because the audience of The Last Voyage of the Demeter has so much more information about the monster than the audience of Alien. And also because the audience knows that Dracula himself is way more interesting than any of the regular guys pulling the lines and steering the ship, even though the actors do their damnedest.
Liam Cunningham plays the dignified Captain Elliott, who permits a young doctor named Clemens (Corey Hawkins) to join the crew before the ship departs Varna. Because Clemens is Black, the mostly Slavic and Irish crew treats him with a bit of racism, but no more than he’s experienced before, he explains. The first mate, Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) is a bit suspicious of him, but the Captain’s grandson Toby (Woody Norman) and Toby’s dog both take a liking to him. So does a veteran sailor named Olgaren (Stefan Kapicic). But things grow complicated after they discover all the livestock have been slaughtered and find a young Slavic woman named Anna (Aisling Franciosi) inside one of the many crates of dirt that are being stowed aboard in the hull.
Amid these strange developments, the crew focuses their suspicions on the wrong newcomers, worrying about the two strangers above deck (Clemens and Anna) instead of realizing that there is a worse one below. The film doesn’t really turn itself into a witchhunt before it becomes a vampire hunt, which feels like a missed opportunity to complicate an otherwise very, very simple film.
Still, when Dracula does materialize, the film becomes a bracing game of hide-and-go-seek with the devil. And if that’s all it accomplishes, that isn’t worth nothing. The film might bite off more than it can chew, but it’s still a dark, deluxe vampire slasher. And, like, I’ll drink to that.