The Last Voyage of the Demeter‘s Big, Toothy Dracula Problem

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The Last Voyage of the Demeter‘s Big, Toothy Dracula Problem

Relatively recently, Twitter did one of the things it used to do best, which was to resurface some strange old thing that Gen Z is too young to have experienced before. This time, it was Dracula—not the umpteen million film adaptations or the unbearable Moffat/Gatiss limited series on Netflix, but the original 1897 novel by Bram Stoker. It’s a work foundational to horror in the 20th century: Film was already in its nascent phase when the novel came out, and it was a scant few years before vampire movies were their own genre. The book is like House of Leaves in that it straddles two eras: Where that book stands between the analog and digital ages, Stoker’s book was really the last hurrah for the gothic horror novel just as it was the first breath of modern vampire fiction. But a lot of people haven’t actually read it, and it’s been fun to watch accounts like DraculaDaily show off the book. I just so happen to have been a fan of Drac since boyhood—an aunt gifted me with a 1997 centennial paperback edition of the book which barely survives today. So, I was excited when The Last Voyage of the Demeter was announced.

The movie takes a laser focus to one small corner (really just 10 pages, in my paperback edition) of the book. And the movie takes its duty to that section seriously! Unfortunately, while it does so, it leaves behind some of the more fascinating aspects of the novel and its antagonist in the interest of a fairly straightforward creature feature, one which would have benefited from either sticking to its source material even more closely or slipping the leash entirely to tell a bold new tale.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, meaning it’s written as a series of letters—or in this case, diary entries. As a brief note at the beginning explains, these diary entries and supplementary materials were placed in a particular order to tell the story, and they were all written mere hours after the events they describe. It’s a framing device meant to ground the story in a modern time. This is a ghost story, but one occurring in the twilight years of Victorian England—and as Stoker himself puts it, it’s an age when science and reason are laying the old superstitions to rest.

The book begins following a lawyer from London as he travels out to a secluded castle in Romania to close a major real estate deal with the odd but urbane Count Dracula. It soon becomes clear the Count is an unholy creature of the night, and that his plan is to relocate to London. It’s during a perspective change that the book incorporates passages from a newspaper covering a small seaside town in England. The wreck of the Demeter, a Russian ship, comes aground during a sudden, severe storm, and as it does, terrified onlookers witness a massive black dog leave the wreck. Aboard they find only the captain, dead, lashed to his own steering wheel with a rosary, with his logs stowed in a bottle on his person.

Those logs, reprinted in the newspaper, tell in scant details of the harrowing final voyage of the Demeter, and the strange creature her crew believed was stalking them.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter follows this closely enough that it even mostly follows the dates laid out in Stoker’s book, borrows specific lines of dialogue from that section of the book, and even reuses the names of characters mentioned just once or twice in the doomed captain’s log. It’s remarkably faithful, except when it very frustratingly isn’t.

Some of the choices Demeter makes are interesting: Its perspective character is an outsider, the Englishman Dr. Clemens (Corey Hawkins), who has been passed over for a lifetime of opportunities because he’s Black and only wins a spot aboard the crew because one superstitious mate doesn’t want to mess with the creepy, unexplained cargo dropped off by shady deliverymen. Other members of the crew added to those from the book include a young ward of the captain (Woody Norman) and a woman with strange wounds who awakens only after days of blood transfusions. (In clear homage to its source material, Demeter subscribes to the belief that ignorance of blood types—first discovered in 1900!—provides ironclad defense against any related mishaps.)

Director Andre Øvredal turns in a decent if predictable creature feature full of gnarly gore and brutal kills: This Dracula is not a sophisticated nobleman in the guise of a man, but a twisted man-sized vampire bat, barely coherent, mockingly repeating the desperate final cries of his victims before audibly chugging blood straight from their carotid arteries. Øvredal also directed Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, another horror flick that lost a lot in the translation between book and film. Øvredal either didn’t get what was scary about the source material in Scary Stories or was hamstrung by the studio’s desire to target the film to youngsters. Here, he’s stuck in the middle ground between faithfulness to a work foundational to his genre and medium, and his clear desire to go wild with vampire gore and zombie kids exploding on contact with daylight.

The Dracula of Dracula is also capable of being a bestial, shapeshifting apex predator. But in the original telling, that’s what Dracula becomes only when his back is up against the wall. His greatest power in the book is that he’s incredibly intelligent, with an immortal being’s devious patience. What becomes clear as the book unfolds, and as the London lawyer’s friends and loved ones become ensnared in the Count’s treachery, is why Dracula has set his scheme in motion, and how it will play out. The Demeter’s last voyage and its spectacular wreck are actually a wonderful microcosm of how the Count’s grand designs casually ensnare and destroy people incidental to his bigger plans.

Dracula is hundreds of years old, and the world around him is changing. When Harker (the lawyer) first arrives at his castle, we learn that Dracula has been studying English for what must be decades, that he’s read everything there is to know about England. He’s as interested in Harker correcting his speech and manners as he is in closing the real estate deal: A massive estate bordering an asylum in London. The boxes of dirt from Romania have been stashed all over the city. As the novel unfolds, Dracula enthralls and turns people close to Harker and his friends, and more diary entries and other news accounts show that this is in a bid to expand his influence throughout London. He’s also cultivating a loyal minion in the madman Renfield, occupying a cell in the asylum adjacent to his new base of operations.

Dracula’s entire plan is about leaving a land where his evil is no longer a secret to go to England, a land where reason and science state that a creature such as him simply can’t exist. He’ll hide as a gentleman in an overwhelmingly large city—London was, at the time Stoker wrote the novel, the largest city in the world. It will be long years indeed, he reasons, before anybody notices anything amiss in such a sprawling, miserable mass of humanity: Some of his thrall’s first victims are orphaned street urchins.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is also of the opinion that Dracula is a skulker, a hider, an ambush predator. It is aware, keenly, of the tension between whispered superstition and flesh-and-blood reality, and it even glancingly addresses an interesting approach to it: Whereas in the novel, Dracula’s mystical and Satanic nature initially baffles the protagonists before they come to terms with it, Clemens is determined to prove that the creature stalking and killing the crew isn’t some magical beast but an animal like any other. It’s a major departure from the book that would be interesting if it were explored properly. It isn’t.

The Dracula of The Last Voyage of the Demeter is not a devious or thoughtful predator, not one who wears the ill-fitting guise of men, like Pennywise from It. This is a creature driven entirely by its baser urges, more interested in toying with its meals than employing any grand strategy. The faithfulness to the original novel leans heavily into some of the incidental details that illustrate that grand design, but the particulars of how Øvredal has his tragedy play out just don’t bear it out, and they end up holding back what could’ve been a freer and more interesting take on the monster. If you’re going with a more “biological” vampire, just abandon the boxes of Transylvanian dirt: The guy can probably sleep anywhere. If your Drac is a creature just learning to ape the tongues of men, why should the deliverymen be in his employ? Why not have them be shipping Dracula, on ice, to get rid of him, rather than following his orders? I love a faithful adaptation, especially of one of my favorite books, but The Last Voyage of the Demeter clings to the source at the expense of what makes it special.

The movie throws out some sequel bait in its last scene, one which shows that this Dracula now prowls the streets of London. Where the novel was chilling, this is completely unconvincing. It’s an unfortunate ending, after coming such a long and stormy way, to end up where the original book does, but less coherently.

Kenneth Lowe seems to be drifting to some terrible doom. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

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