As a horror junkie, I’m heartened to see something like The Last Voyage of the Demeter getting a wide theatrical release. Fifteen years ago, a movie with Demeter’s premise (which is basically Alien by way of Dracula) would have been made on a tenth of its budget and released straight to DVD under a title like Vampire Ship. But in these days where horror remains one of the only bankable genres in a struggling box office, audiences get to see a legitimately skilled genre filmmaker like André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) make his Dracula-on-a-boat movie with considerable resources and talent.
An expansion of the “Captain’s Log” section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Demeter is a detailed account of what happened to the crew of the ship that inadvertently carried Dracula from Transylvania to London. Adapting a single chapter from a 125-year-old book may seem like a bizarre decision, but give screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz some credit for not just serving up the umpteenth version of the Dracula story. If anything, such a stripped-down premise makes Demeter rife with B-movie potential. Who wouldn’t want to see a group of doomed passengers on board a spooky ship get picked off by a winged monster?
Sadly, The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a dull and repetitive affair, failing to deliver on even the most basic thrills of watching a group of doomed passengers getting picked off by a winged monster. The real problem is that Demeter is too self-serious to be the gory romp it’s begging to be but also too generic and grim to stand as a legitimately thrilling horror film.
The first act is easily the movie’s weakest, as we spend far too much time meeting our paper-thin characters, each of them defined by a single broad trait. There’s our hero, Clemens (Corey Hawkins), an aspiring doctor returning to London and determined to overcome the racial discrimination he faced there. There’s Wojchek (David Dastmalchian, always delightful to see), the guy who loves to insist nothing weird is happening on the ship despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. We also get a kindly old captain played by Liam Cunningham, who wisely decided to bring along his young grandson. Oh, and we can’t forget the surprise stowaway who has enough history with Dracula to deliver mandatory exposition to the rest of the crew.
None of these characters are compelling in the least, but the movie doesn’t seem to realize this. By the time the first crew member gets mauled by Dracula, it’s a merciful relief. Unfortunately, those sequences quickly grow tiresome as well.
Nearly every death sequence follows the exact same routine: A character wanders alone at night on the deck of the ship (very smart), they hear a weird noise and then proceed to stare into the thick fog and darkness with a dumbfounded expression on their face. Finally, wouldn’t ya know it, Dracula pops out and bites them on the neck. It’s not all that inventive the first time you see it let alone the sixth time.
Kudos to the effects team for leveraging some practical effects in their Dracula design. Making the vampire a winged, gargoyle-like creature is a nice change of pace from the sophisticated debonair of more recent depictions. At the same time, there really isn’t anything too memorable about his look; he’s basically Nosferatu by way of Gollum, and when he’s finally fully revealed during the climactic showdown, it’s a bit underwhelming.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a particularly frustrating misfire because a single-location vampire movie only needs to deliver on a few key ingredients — copious gore, tight pacing, and a nifty monster design. This whiffs on all three. Luckily, those looking for a Dracula fix have about 10,000 other movies from which to choose.