The Last Voyage of the Demeter (R) ★★★

Review Date: August 14th, 2023

After decades of neutering, it's fun to once again encounter a vampire who is bestial and monstrous. The vampires in this movie don't sparkle when exposed to the sun, they burst into flame and die horribly. And the king of all un-dead, the legendary Dracula, resembles Nosferatu's antagonist as if imagined by H.R. Geiger. With all pretense at sex and sensuality jettisoned, this vampire story is about hunger and bloodletting. The gothic atmosphere allows director Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) to present this story, based on a chapter from Bram Stoker's Dracula, as a sort of "Alien on a ship," in which an ever-strengthening monster plays a game of cat-and-mouse with a crew determined to kill it or die in the process. Anyone who has read the novel knows which of the two outcomes is most likely.

One thing that makes The Last Voyage of the Demeter different is that it doesn't feel like a cookie-cutter vampire movie. The film's Dracula (Javier Botet) is a soulless creature who exists in the shadows; we never get a lingering close-up or posed shot. He is frightening not only because of how the camera presents him but because of the carnage caused by his attacks. These aren't erotically-charged hickeys; his teeth tear at the flesh like a wild animal's.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is based on a single chapter from Stoker's novel - roughly ten pages out of a 400-page book. Those who have read Dracula remember this part of the saga - the Ocean transit from Transylvania to London carrying boxes of dirt from the Count's castle (as well as the Count himself) - as little more than a footnote. The screenplay, credited to Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz (with the contributions of numerous other collaborators over the years), uses the events in Chapter VII and expands upon them. Although many details have been changed (the total number of souls aboard having been doubled from five to ten), the basic plot points remain the same. The movie runs into some trouble at the end because there's no clean way to conclude the story when so much of it ventures beyond the purview of the ocean journey. One of the few unsatisfying aspects of The Last Voyage of the Demeter is how it's wrapped up.

The film's first thirty minutes establish the characters and backstory. In addition to the various, somewhat anonymous crewmembers of the Demeter, we're introduced to Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a black man who has graduated from Cambridge with a medical degree; Anna (Aisling Franciosi), an ailing stowaway; Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham), an experienced and practical sea-farer; and Toby (Woody Norman), the captain's young grandson. Once they are away from land and well on their way, strange things begin happening and what at first seems merely ominous quickly turns alarming with the first death and the realization that something of a supernatural origin is at work, hiding beneath decks amidst the crates of dirt.

For the most part, horror movies are not happy affairs and this one is no different. As anyone who has read Dracula knows, The Last Voyage of the Demeter doesn't have an upbeat ending and this realization adds a layer of doom to an already dark motion picture. The movie makes the most of its atmospherics, with the perpetual gloom incorporating a gothic element and Bear McCreary's score (reminiscent of some of his work for the TV series Battlestar Galactica) adding an edginess to the proceedings. If ever a movie deserved an Oscar nomination for Sound Editing and Mixing, this is it. The Last Voyage of the Demeter embraces claustrophobia and paranoia, making the viewer feel as trapped and hunted as the men that Dracula is picking off one-by-one.

For those who come to The Last Voyage of the Demeter with a well-honed knowledge of Bram Stoker's novel, the film's results are close enough to what happens in the book to earn a respectful nod of approval. (Yes, there are deviations but that has been par for the course for every adaptation.) For those simply looking for a creepy time full of blood, gore, and old-fashioned scares, those things are on offer as well. Most importantly, this movie returns Dracula to his position among the pantheon of movie monsters, dashing away "sympathetic" portrayals with one of unflinching, unallayed evil. The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a harrowing journey but, for those who appreciate horror, it's well worth taking.

© 2023 James Berardinelli