The Last Voyage of the Demeter Review: New Take Fails to Realize What Makes Dracula Scary

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This LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER article contains spoilers.

Anyone who has read Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, or seen almost any movies which have been adapted from it, knows the ending to director André Øvredal’s The Last Voyage of the Demeter. It is one chapter, and an early one at that, which ultimately provides its titular vampire with a change of scenery. It has a full arc, and no one survives. It’s all in “The Captain’s Log,” with additional information cut from the outside perspective of a character who was never onboard. It really is the most frightening chapter of the book, and does indeed warrant its own individual telling. But we only get smatterings of it from Liam Cunningham’s Captain Eliot, who narrates the bookends of The Last Voyage of the Demeter.

While all the notes are here, Demeter’s basic plot immediately differs by adding several characters, including the captain’s grandson Toby (Woody Norman). The Demeter is a Russian merchant vessel whose crew is paid a little extra to carry what appears to be crates of dirt from Romania to England. In the book, the boat maintains a skeleton crew consisting of the captain, two officers, and five crewmen, but the film adds a ship’s doctor, Clemens, who is played by Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, BlacKkKlansman) and a stowaway named Anna (Game of Thrones’ Aisling Franciosi) to the ranks.

During the trip, the ship is battered by the currents, and the crew is besieged by a lethal onboard presence. At first, they believe it might be Anna, a young woman who may have been smuggled aboard, but only as a blood bag for the traveling Transylvanian Count to suck on when he’s feeling peckish. And viewers know from the top that by the time the ship hits the seaside town of Whitby, there’s little blood left in the crew of the old ship.

The potential suspense of any story where a group of characters are killed off one-by-one is incalculable by even a skippers’ clearest telescopic spyglass. This is true whether the numbers are depleted by aliens as in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), or a mysterious island guest, like the Agatha Christie murder mystery And Then There Were None (1945), which is all The Last Voyage of the Demeter aims to offer. Yet there is no visceral suspense to this one. Nothing builds, clues are dropped as clumsily as a crate on a shipyard, and you have to step over them to get past the irony.

In an unintentional running joke, the film’s director wants us to always know this is a horror movie. We are sonically reminded from the opening credits that this is going to be scary, and the soundtrack works overtime to assert this when what’s onscreen cannot. At one point, young Toby is having some fun in the warm brown wooden hulls of the ship, and the score kicks in with a dark dissonant chord, but there’s no apparent cause onscreen. At least there’s a reason to interrupt the giddy sea shanty lustily sung by the crew with an ominous overture: Their singalong was beginning to sound as alarming as the monster in the storage hold.

The film navigates the same charts as the log, but goes off course. The Last Voyage of the Demeter wants to be Alien on the high seas, but drifts into shark week. It’s not like they need a bigger boat. There is probably a justifiable need to see the raw horror of the vampire in this movie; it offsets the romantic villain of more recent Gothic fantasies, and the Demeter is the perfect setting for that aspect of the Dracula persona. The hulls creek, the meat goes rotten, the rats have jumped ship. There is nothing but a predator and its prey. It is a universal terror, pure, basic instinct. Survival of the fittest.

In the film, Dracula is a frail animal, desperate for blood. When his goodie bag, Anna, begins breathing air instead of dirt, he moves on to other animals. And once he kills the first crew member, he takes on the demonic quality which so oppressed the Transylvanian villagers. Dracula is still an animal, but with the underlying sense of a recognizable intelligence.

Dracula’s multi-fanged teeth are crooked and razor-sharp, but in the right light could pass as the very bad teeth of an elderly man. The best scene of the film captures this. Dracula is the terrifying vampire nightmare figure with no hint of the dashing caped invader. He is patterned on the stowaway traveler in the silent classic Nosferatu (1922), but even Max Schreck brought some disturbing eroticism to the role. His Count Orlok had heart. He grabbed it from Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder) while she was dreaming, but he has it. One missed opportunity is that when a vampire is merely a monster it can only cause mopery on the high seas. Vampires are best when they’re distressingly seductive; it adds to impact to the shock. A simple kiss can tear apart a throat. This film’s poor sailors,however, have only horror to contend with between ports.

In the book, the crew is horrifically dispatched by an “it,” according to the log’s description of the tall, pale man onboard killing each isolated sailor. Javier Botet’s Dracula in Demeter is thus an unadulterated bestial version of the immortal bloodsucker. The actor displayed his powers of contortion as the homeless leper in It Chapter One (2017) and has kept in shape since. The hungry creature is supposed to look fragile, but is far too agile. He only comes across as dangerous. The book’s log unveils a villainous, unseen, master manipulator. The film gives us an eating machine.

The film also disappoints from the larger horror genre perspective. Every jump scare is announced ahead of time. There is a specific beat which precedes any sudden appearance of the sharp-toothed predator, which just screams “hello, get ready to be scared here!” It is consistent throughout. It usually comes after someone looks upward and their eyes widen. Sometimes there is an ocular variation, some pupils dilate, others disappear altogether or roll inside themselves. It isn’t wise to even wink at someone on this ship, you never know what might jump out at you. Sadly, you will know when.

One particular detail of the book is also rendered far too cinematically reverent. Poor Captain Eliot looks like he’s been crucified as the ship comes close to scuttling, but the details on the page don’t need such a grand presentation. It should have been an entire sequence in the film, but we only see the aftermath.

“The man was simply fastened by his hands, tied one over the other, to a spoke of the wheel,” the novel reads. “Between the inner hand and the wood was a crucifix, the set of beads on which it was fastened being around both wrists and wheel, and all kept fast by the binding cords. The poor fellow may have been seated at one time, but the flapping and buffeting of the sails had worked through the rudder of the wheel and had dragged him to and fro, so that the cords with which he was tied had cut the flesh to the bone.”

Liam Cunningham is robbed of playing that scene. The all-too treacherous humanity of sailor against wind, allowed to live, or condemned to it, by a monster who has killed his crew would have been a terrifying tour de force. It epitomizes the dangers of the natural order as well as the lethal aura of the supernatural being.

Not for nothing, but the title of the film, “The Last Voyage,” gives away the ending. This schooner will sail no more. Steel boats are the wave of the future in the setting of the feature. The creature has to steer the rest of the story.

The Last Voyage Of The Demeter opens in theaters August 11.

The post The Last Voyage of the Demeter Review: New Take Fails to Realize What Makes Dracula Scary appeared first on Den of Geek.

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