This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a cinematic retelling of a single chapter in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ And it definitely lacks faith.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a loose film adaptation of Log of the ‘Demeter,’ an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A crew sails from Eastern Europe to England looking forward to a bonus upon landing, unaware that the cargo contains the most famous fictional vampire of all time…until bodies start dropping.
Does the film measure up to the book? Be prepared for spoilers about both.
We usually based the acceptability of an adaption on whether or not it makes the original story “better’ or is at least faithful in spirit. Going by this criteria, The Last Voyage of the Demeter is monotonous. The plot builds its foundation on a basic slasher formula, as we mainly wait to see people getting picked off in gruesome ways by a seemingly insurmountable, supernatural threat.
“Evil is on board.”
Sure, this approach is going “by the book” more or less, but stopping at different ports during the journey, for example, could have provided an opportunity to better develop these doomed characters. Bodies disappearing sounds more frightening than discovering them. To be fair, this is certainly the kind of outcome we should expect from director André Øvredal, whose 2010 film Troll Hunter was also based on an intriguing concept with good performances that dragged out its welcome.
On that note, writers Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz share some blame for the film’s plodding as well. That said, it’s worth pointing out that the concept for The Last Voyage of the Demeter was stuck in development for over two decades, so maybe everyone is simply relieved to see that the film is finally done.
Some good news, at least: this version of Dracula (played by Javier Botet) appears more like a humanoid species displaying aggressive mimicry than a man. Think Mimic (1997) meets Nosferatu (1922) meets Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain (2014-2017). You will not be able to imagine this creature entertaining Jonathan Harker long enough to secure passage and buy real estate. He is a batlike gargoyle creature with a mean streak who gets off on scaring his prey as much as drinking their blood.
“We call him Dracula.”
The film works best when it revels in Dracula’s menace and how he taunts his victims. There is one killing scene in particular that has a rapey vibe as the camera shows a close up of a gasping man’s face as Dracula lies on top of him and drinks from him violently, which makes the man’s body move rhythmically and involuntarily on the floor. It is all about power, no seduction or temptation for eternal life.
A victim in The Last Voyage of the Demeter is having a good day if this Dracula only treats you like food. While the vamps from 30 Days of Night (2007) could do more visceral damage, this Dracula would probably ruin your credit if it was your worst fear. To be fair, he is right to be angry because someone stole his packed lunch. If you are expecting him to shape shift into a dog to escape as he does in the novel, don’t, but he can hook you up with some fog and seems to control the weather.
His kills are devastating, but he wastes food. Stop slashing throats and just letting people walk away, spilling everywhere. Drink them already. Side note: Dracula does not wear clothes for most of the film, so for Dracula, he’s probably just chilling, snacking on a road trip to the bustling tourist destination of London.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter waffles on whether crucifixes can hurt Dracula. If the filmmakers want Dracula to be a biological creature instead of a supernatural one, then if the crucifix does not work. It’s probably fine overall, but it was irritating that the characters took their necklaces off so there was ambiguity to whether or not the crucifix would have worked if it was in a different position. Take a stand. Does the power of Christ compel you only if it is in a good location?
Vampires or zombies? Why not both?
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a mixed bag when it comes to what happens to Dracula’s victims after an attack. The film is not faithful to the book, but the departure felt effective because it evoked more terror than expected. Victim transformation feels reminiscent of an obscure, poorly made film called Edges of Darkness (2008), which drew a compelling link between vampires and zombies. Rest assured that there are no zombies in this film, but some victims do lose autonomy and display a typical zombie’s physiological characteristics such as displaying no reaction to pain during relentless pursuit of a target.
Because one member of the crew, Clemens (Corey Hawkins), is a Black British doctor, there is discussion over an infection and theorizing whether Dracula is the devil or a living being. The infection storyline is just an afterthought, though, and when Clemens immediately decides to do blood transfusions, he immediately diagnoses the patient’s issue in a way that strains plausibility.
The film does retain how Dracula’s victims can act as Trojan horse boomerangs who end up hurting those who love them. And they also share Dracula’s weaknesses, i.e. being flammable in sunlight. This is all ultimately wasted, however, on the unobservant crew who has no idea how to kill Dracula, as they keep choosing to fight him at night.
The rest of The Last Voyage of the Demeter lacks bite.
With an almost two-hour run time, being dull is its deadliest feature. If a film is longer than 90 minutes, then the time needs to be used to get viewers invested in three-dimensional characters. As such, the characters are archetypes and lack real character development that goes beyond sheer terror. With time travel, Clemens could time jump into a remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) without missing a beat. He is that perfect and noble. Kids and women like him. He has no flaws, which gives the film an old-fashioned feel.
Toward the end, he delivers so many monologues. Would a monologue about how he had to fight racism inspire a crew with explicit racists? Dracula may be a sadistic monster, but he’s not racist. Familiar with horror tropes, this Dracula refuses to kill the Black man first and kills the most racist, misogynistic, and problematic crew first.
When other characters hate Clemens, they are signing their death warrant and have no other notable characteristics except their accent. Can Clemens be equated with Dr. Abraham Van Helsing? Probably not. If he is, his name should have been Dr. Van Helsing. The film creates Clemens in a vacuum and never considers how he would fit in with the rest of the novel’s characters. The filmmakers needed to consider this film as a part of a cohesive whole.
Here comes the bride.
There is a Smurfette (there can only be one….woman), Anna (Aisling Franciosi), whose character arc resembles development. She is a bit of a realistic badass, has a tragic backstory, and wields grim acceptance and courage in the face of insurmountable odds. It felt like the story missed the mark by not making her into the protagonist and following her journey from terrorized peasant to begrudgingly accepted crew member.
Anna is a realistic reimagining of a bride of Dracula, sure, but she leaves viewers with an unspoken question: are there other brides on the Demeter? And what are they like if they side with this version of Dracula? In the novel, they are not called brides, but “sisters,” and their origins are never revealed. The Last Voyage of the Demeter does not consider or remember that they will try to convert Mina Harker to their side. It is a dropped thread.
Otherwise, the remaining crew members are anonymous. One can rationalize that it’s perfectly plausible to assume a Russian ship would have people from other regions working on it, but the novel explicitly states that the crew is Russian except for one Romanian. The bending of race, gender, and national origin can be fine, but be prepared to hear a lot of Irish actors play the captain and crew on a Russian ship.
English-language films often get away with casting actors who sport a “Russian” accent, but not a single actor here is Russian or even from Eastern Europe. Still, the cast does their best in spite of these limitations, especially David Dastmalchian, who has been busy this year with The Boogeyman and Oppenheimer.
Counting out the crew.
The most interesting deviation is changing the cook into a Filipino Christianist man, Joseph (Jon Jon Briones), who becomes increasingly unhinged and hostile as the body count rises. Joseph was underutilized and is certainly a bright spot in the film. Whereas the book had a character commit suicide by jumping off the ship to avoid becoming a human-sized juice box and preserve his soul, Joseph adds to his coworkers’ torment by blaming their alleged sins for the disastrous turn in events, harming them and stealing a lifeboat.
Less welcome was the casting of a child as a member of the crew, but if a viewer can stand the intrusion, there is a merciless payoff that ushers in the best elements of Salem’s Lot (1979) and It (2017). Viewers who are parents and cannot stand watching a kid in danger should not buy a ticket.
If The Last Voyage of the Demeter does have some deeper meaning underneath its rote horror, it might be the way in which the crew impulsively blames a Black man and white woman for the mysterious disappearances before discovering the Dracula behind it all. Superstition, intolerance, suspicion of education, and hatred of the other prevents the crew from uniting and determining the true source of their problems. Anna’s backstory shows how people will sacrifice their daughters and side with an evil, powerful ruler instead of revolting against him. It echoes Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967).
Jesus take the wheel.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter does butcher the most striking scene in this chapter of the book: the captain strapped to the wheel wearing a cross. Instead, the film ends on a weak note shamelessly fishing for a sequel. By sympathizing with the captain instead of depicting him as an ineffective leader in the novel, the film misses an opportunity to pay homage to Alien (1979) beyond the premise of being trapped with a monster on a ship and adhere to the theme of a crisis in leadership.
The man in charge is clueless. The foundation of the dread is the unsettling sense that everyone knows more than him, but he must lead them and does not know if their concerns are legitimate. Or if the crew is responsible for the disappearances.
The original story is more frightening because people are initially more concerned with how their boss sees them but has most of the solutions. The crew recognized the threat before the captain does and have to manage him while offering solutions that he will accept without becoming openly insubordinate. Especially after the pandemic, the timeless book still contains a salient message that propping up superficial, ineffective leadership practices and institutions will not prevent death. The adaptation, however, somehow ends up being profoundly more dated.