The Last Voyage Of The Demeter (2023)

AUGUST 13, 2023


I didn't start writing about horror movies until 2006, and at that point, The Last Voyage of the Demeter was already on its second round of rewrites after the initial version started falling apart. Since then a series of directors have come and gone, and considering the final version has seven known writers in addition to Bram Stoker, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the film feels hollow; whatever original spark may have existed in its original draft has been sanded (rewritten) away, so all that's left is a technically proficient and occasionally engaging monster movie, but without any genuine excitement or obvious passion. It's just THERE.

The concept is fine: taking the Demeter chapter from Stoker's Dracula (which, I hope I don't have to explain, depicts how he got from Transylvania to London) and expanding it to a full length feature, pitched more or less as "Alien but on Dracula's boat" (a scene where the ship's men fret about their bonuses seems to be a direct tip of the hat to Ridley Scott's classic). But not only is it not as novel as it might have been once upon a time, since they basically already did that in the second "episode" (basically a movie) of BBC's Dracula from 2020 (which is terrific and should be seen by anyone reading this, if they haven't already), but it also lacks the mystery of that film. The crew of the Nostromo didn't know what they were dealing with, and neither did we - we learned along with it. Here maybe our heroes don't know who/what Dracula is, but we in the audience do, so we're always several steps ahead of the characters, several of whom are fairly anonymous (there are two mates who I literally couldn't tell apart), unlike Scott's memorable crew. A better comparison might be Alien 3, where there were a few standouts (including a Game of Thrones guy! Charles "Tywin" Dance there, Liam "Davos" Cunningham here) and a bunch of glorified extras (prisoners, in that case).

Also, Alien's timeline made sense, whereas this film's month long journey is shown to be doomed almost from the start, when "something" (read: Dracula) kills all of the livestock meant to serve as the crew's food. After two weeks Drac starts helping himself to the crew, which would be fine if there were like 30 guys on board, but there are a total of ten, one of whom is a victim already stored away in one of the Count's wooden crates and thus not in any danger until she gives off her obligatory exposition. The first victim is explained away as possibly drunk and fell overboard, but it's not long until most of them have seen the creature, at which point the movie should be basically one non-stop hunt, right? Like in, er, Alien? Nope, they keep going as normal, with the Captain (Cunningham) demanding two men take each watch at night, an amusing line because at that point there's only like four left anyway. And it's not a particular big boat, so why they can't find him in a single day (when he's sleeping, of course) is just silly, let alone after several. Since the whole "Bulgaria to London by boat" aspect doesn't make a lick of sense anyway (look at a map if you're confused as to why), there's clearly some huge liberties with geography, so why make up the arbitrary month-long time it would take when it just weakens the story?

Part of what got me excited for the film was the comparisons to Hammer movies, but I'm not sure which ones they were watching because two of the issues I had would never happen under Terence Fisher's watch. One is that the film is too damn long, running just under two hours when most Hammer movies had the good sense to come in at 90 or less. Sure, all movies are longer now, but usually there's a story that demands such length. Here the plot is "Dracula is on a ship and kills everyone", a mystery that even a complete novice wouldn't have a chance to see unfold because it (sigh) starts at the end, with the doomed ship already crashed on the shores of England, crew dead/missing. There's no real point to any of this material (there's no real twist to the other end of this framing device), and lessens the impact of the boat crashing on the rocks when it happens.

The other thing is that Hammer movies notably, at times even laughably ended as soon as the monster was dispatched; if credits weren't already rolling more than 60 seconds after Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster met his (temporary) end, something was amiss. Here, we get an extended and very obnoxious scene where the film's lone survivor (I won't spoil it because I guess it technically counts as a surprise as to which one it is, when you consider the rest of the cast) has voiceover explaining that they're not finished with Dracula and blah blah blah setup for The Second Last Voyage of Demeter or whatever you'd call a sequel to a film with such a definitive title. Even if the film hadn't tanked at the box office, ensuring no sequel would ever exist, it would have been a pretty weak way to end the film, and again goes against whatever "Hammer style" approach they were taking. Those movies all ended definitively and would be retconned or explained in a sequel IF ticket sales encouraged them to make one! At some point they got it backwards, and it sucks.

On the plus side, it was cool to see Dracula as a monster again, as opposed to the usual handsome guy (especially since Universal already had one of those this year with Renfield, a far more inspired film). He talks a little, and it's an actual actor in makeup as opposed to a CGI creation, but there is nothing typically *human* about their appearance, and director André Øvredal uses it sparingly, sticking him in shadows and lightning-strike glimpses even in the third act. And the R rating is fully earned, with very gruesome throat gouges, a couple icky demonstrations of what happens to vamps in the sun, and other bloody showcases (he sure wastes a lot of his food, but whatever). Luckily, Øvredal doesn't apply that sense of showmanship to the animal deaths - they're all killed offscreen (including a dog, just fair warning). Tear a guy's head off, sure, but do not show us a pig being bitten!

And the cast was fine; Cunningham is always a pleasure to watch, as are Corey Hawkins (as the newest member of the crew and also the doctor) and David Dastmalchian (first mate), all of whom commit to their performances and keep things lively even when they're repeating beats from previous scenes (sometimes it feels like Dastmalchian's character merely forgot about earlier events whenever a new body turns up). I didn't recognize anyone else, but the script didn't give much for anyone else to really work with; even the lone female doesn't particularly stand out beyond, well, being the lone female. She's tasked with some of the exposition and thankfully spared a romance with Hawkins (or decidedly less consensual attention from the rowdier mates), so it could be worse, but at one point Noomi Rapace was cast in this role (assuming the basic plot was always the same across twenty years of development) and it's clearly not a role she'd have much interest in, considering how thin it was. Bear McCreary's main theme was pretty good too, though I can't deny I wish Thomas Newman had stuck with the film (yep, even composers came and went on this thing), as he doesn't do a lot of genre work but one of the few exceptions was The Lost Boys, so it would have been interesting to see him return to vamp fare with another 35 years of experience to draw from.

I get sort of sad when a movie like this comes along and doesn't grab me, because on paper it's the very thing I wish to see more often: an R rated monster movie designed to actually be scary. And I'm a sucker for contained location horror, plus it basically unfolds like one of my beloved slasher films. But it just never really came together for me, always feeling like it was just putting its pieces into play before stepping things up, only for that escalation to never really come. There are some inspired moments, such as Hawkins' heartbreaking reveal that the reason he, a Cambridge-trained doctor, was in Romania looking for work is because he was hired based on reputation only to arrive and be shunned because he was Black, and a funny little bit where Dastmalchian questions how his education could be any use at the sea, but those moments are a. few and far between and b. notably not part of the horror-driven scenes. Øvredal knows how to make suspense in confinement work (Autopsy of Jane Doe is an all timer), but he never managed to really raise my pulse here - there was more tension in the damn Nun II trailer beforehand (that magazine flipping bit) than I ever felt on this Voyage.

What say you?


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