Much like the battered, doomed schooner at the center of its story, The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a film that seemed to be fatally cursed. Writer Bragi Schut (Escape Room) had a script written as far back as the early 2000s and, ever since, plans for production have consistently failed, with the property changing studio hands multiple times as various creative teams would onboard the film before later abandoning it. Directors David Slade and Neil Marshall; stars Ben Kingsley, Noomi Rapace, Viggo Mortensen and Jude Law—all were attached, and all left. After 20 years, it seemed fair to assume the project would be forever lost at sea.
However, just as the curse of the Demeter doesn’t end when it reaches the English shore, torn to bits and with a dead captain and missing crew (don’t worry—the film tells you this upfront), the curse of The Last Voyage of the Demeter hasn’t ended now that it’s landed in cinemas, as it’s fated to be lost within the extensive annals of generic studio monster movies. The unique elevator pitch at the center of this largely misbegotten misfire has had its ambitions swallowed up by tedious, dull anonymity.
That clever central concept is that this is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—but just the seventh chapter, centered around the arrival of the destroyed Demeter which unknowingly transported the central bloodsucker from Transylvania to London, and the accompanying Captain’s log that describes the strange events that led to the crew’s eventual demise. It’s a novel idea, and one that has palpable potential during the initial motions of the film, but one that slowly loses ground to the trappings of standard horror fodder.
It starts with the rounding up of a crew for a special excursion to the British Isles for a mysterious client offering bonus pay for quick and safe passage across the treacherous waters. Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham) and his mate Wojchek (an always-welcome David Dastmalchain) focus on gathering the roughest mariners they can find, save for one man named Clemens (Corey Hawkins), hired on for his medical and navigational skills. He has a gentler spirit and disposition than the others on board; when the Captain asks his men what they plan to do with their extra cash, Clemens simply says his only desire is to make sense of a world that doesn’t seem to make much sense at all.
Imagine how much his existential anxieties are exacerbated when the crew starts getting picked off one by one in the night by a spindly demon that thirsts for blood. Seeing as the marketing department has not been shy in showing him off, you’ve likely already gotten a sense that this film’s Dracula is expunged of any sense of the humanity that he has in the novel or in other film adaptations. He’s humanoid, but more hellish bat than person, with taut inky skin, empty eyes and an animalistic inclination. This interpretation of Dracula is a full-on creature feature.
After all the choppy waters of production settled, it was Norwegian director André Øvredal who ended up manning the ship. His playful genre excursions like Trollhunter and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark seemed to make him a prime fit for this type of bump-in-the-night horror. Here, he returns to the claustrophobia of his film The Autopsy of Jane Doe, making another single-setting survive-the-night type of movie, but with the tangible, monstrous presence of Dracula stalking the ship as opposed to the ghostly haunting of a morgue. Øvredal provides glimpses of his typical propensity for well-crafted B-movie thrills, finding fittingly creepy ways to position the lanky, demonic version of the vampire into corners and shadows that, in the movie’s best moments, work as perfectly unnerving pieces of standalone horror imagery. He also ensures that The Last Voyage of the Demeter doesn’t shy away from a good bit of gruesome violence, taking satisfying advantage of an R-rating that the film has been slapped with for bloodshed alone. He crafts moments that, in a vacuum, sell you on the idea of what this movie could be.
If only those moments amounted to anything more than fleeting suggestions of a better film. For all of its occasional inspired images, The Last Voyage of the Demeter lacks real atmosphere or a necessary sense of unease. There’s a tangibility missing from the environment of the ship and, for as neat as the creature design is, there are too many stray times when Dracula is lurking around in the dark that he looks like a cheap digital creation. It gives the film an off-putting artificial flavor which sucks out a lot of suspense.
This lack of tension comes down to the script, as well. Credited to both Schut and Zak Olkewicz (Bullet Train), the screenplay hypothetically has room to expound on the epistolary nature of the novel, filling in the gaps where the story makes simple suggestions. The chapter in the book only consists of the information provided by a correspondent present when the ship washes ashore and the limited notes from the logs of Captain Eliot. The film is able to emphasize the what-ifs of the situation, most notably by throwing Eliot’s precocious young son Toby (Woody Norman) onto the ship to create more direct emotional stakes, as well as incorporating a stowaway named Anna (Aisling Franciosi) into the mix, partially to add a woman’s perspective to the anxieties of the all-male crew and partially to provide Clemens with some exposition about Dracula.
But that info-dumping is indicative of a larger problem, where the foundation of the premise is undercut by this very tether to Dracula. There’s a certain dramatic irony and tension taken away by incorporating a character that already knows who Dracula is. A film that before felt like an extended bottle episode tucked into the larger story of the book, sturdy in its independence from its source material, now feels overcomplicated in its obligation to lore. This relates to its ending too, which goes on two painful minutes too long in a kind of dreadful, confused franchising attempt. In the end, The Last Voyage of the Demeter fails to commit to its own larger idea.
All of this aside though, the real problem with The Last Voyage of the Demeter is just how nondescript and unmemorable it is. The chapter being adapted is so remarkable in its unnerving ambiguity and stark prose that it inspired an entire film production. The resulting work is so bland that it’s hard to tell it apart from the dozen other studio horror movies that have come out since the time it originally started production. There’s nothing wrong with the approach—a totally gonzo, demonic beast-monster movie version of Dracula would just be one new cinematic mode for this story in a long line of them, maybe one that could expose a worthwhile new perspective for such a lauded text. It’s a shame that the idea turned into something so lifeless and muddled, left to sink under the weight of its aspirations.
Directors: André Øvredal
Writers: Bragi Schut, Zak Olkewicz
Starring: Corey Hawkins, Aisling Franciosi, Liam Cunningham, David Dastmalchian
Release Date: August 11, 2023
Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.