The Last Voyage of the Demeter review: Dracula by way of Alien
“It’s B-movie pulp executed with just the right amount of Masterpiece Theatre classiness — a refined monster mash.”
Not just the same old Dracula movie
Nifty creature effects
A strong cast
Bring back celluloid, please
Bram Stoker devoted fewer than 2,000 words to the bleak fate of the Demeter, the merchant vessel Count Dracula sneaks aboard to get from his castle in Transylvania to the streets of London. And yet the spooky fatalism and mounting paranoia of that interlude — a chapter within a chapter, presented as the increasingly alarmed and oddly spaced entries of the captain’s log — have endured in the imagination of readers. Naturally, some of the many movies adapted from Stoker’s epistolary 1897 novel have lavishly visualized the vampire’s massacre at sea, albeit usually in miniature: a single scene of rain and panic in the Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella versions, the queasy fever-dream montage of Francis Ford Coppola’s opulent take.
With The Last Voyage of the DemeterNorwegian monster-movie specialist André Øvredal makes a full meal out of those few creepy pages; for once, Stoker’s transitional interlude has been retold over hours rather than mere minutes. Swaddling a grim creature feature in the trappings of period-piece respectability, Demeter is high-meets-low horror in the vintage spirit of the British production house Hammer, whose own Dracula adaptation, incidentally, omitted the events aboard the ship. Øvredal has also made the kind of midbudget Hollywood monster movie that seems to now survive only far from the daylight of studio expectation, in the shadowy underbelly of the August release calendar.
An ominous epigraph and the opening-scene discovery of an empty ship wrecked against the rocks of England immediately set the forecast to “abandon all hope.” Flashing back a few weeks from this point, Øvredal wastes little time on dry Romanian land, quickly placing a motley crew of thickly accented sailors under the command of Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham, bringing the stage-actor dignity he once lent Game of Thrones) and his first mate, Wojchek (ace character actor David Dastmalchian).
The script by Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, drafts of which have been kicking around Hollywood since the Coppola movie was still in production, makes a few significant additions to the passenger manifest. They include a sharp boy (Woody Norman), as well as the Demeter’s newly invented protagonist, Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a doctor whose presence aboard the ship — and backstory of discriminatory hardship — feels like a deliberate attempt to steer away from the allegorical racism many have read in Stoker’s story.
The downward spiral of missing persons and strange occurrences commences with the discovery of an apparent stowaway: a young woman, played by The Nightingale‘s Aisling Franciosi, who whispers warnings of the monster who preyed on her village. Demeter‘s Dracula is not of the dashingly regal variety popularized by Lugosi and Christopher Lee. He’s more bat than man — a cadaverous, mostly nonverbal bloodsucker who bears more than a passing resemblance to Max Schreck’s verminous Count Orlok in the first and still best of Dracula adaptations, the unauthorized Nosferatu. There’s also a touch of Pumpkinhead, that great practical Stan Winston beastie of ’80s cult horror, in the close-ups of the count’s grotesque, inhuman smile.
With its rising body count on a damned vessel, Demeter has more in common with Alien than any previous vehicle for literature’s most famous vampire. Øvredal, who made the nifty YA adaptation Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the slow-burn morgue creepshow The Autopsy of Jane Doeknows just how clear a view of his unholy star attraction he should provide at any given moment. Still, there are times when it’s hard not to wish this were a film of a different era before movie monsters moved at computer-generated speed and any creaky old board of a mighty ship looked creakier through the textured scrim of celluloid. To his credit, Øvredal does sometimes lean into the digital uncanniness to good effect: Shots of the ship emerging from fog and storm have a painterly grandeur.
The cast is mostly excellent, and the dialogue has a periodic gallows-humor elegance: “A boat without rats,” sighs one crewmate in the absence of rodent chatter. “Such a thing is against nature.” One might wish the characters were a little richer, a little less stock. The script defines them largely in broad strokes, bellowing about hell, fate, and their respective creeds under the shadow of certain death. Then again, this is not material that cries out for psychological complexity. It’s B-movie pulp executed with just the right amount of Masterpiece Theatre classiness — a refined monster mash.
In all truth, the power of the Demeter passage probably always lay in the subjective withholding of information, in how little it actually describes. Telling the tale only through the reflections of the captain, whose distress steadily grew with each new dated entry, encouraged readers to let their imaginations run wild and fill in the gaps of the report. Whatever seafaring horror our minds could conjure would probably be scarier than anything in The Last Voyage of the Demeter. Nonetheless, it’s not unwelcome, this committed act of elaborative adaptation — especially after a century of big-screen trips to that same looming castle on the cliff. Are there more untapped veins of Dracula? Renfield’s stay in the madhouse could make for a pretty good movie, too.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter opens in theaters everywhere Friday, August 11. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.