Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Last Voyage of the Demeter: from the Captain’s Log

People forget Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel, probably because most film versions cannot replicate its use of letters and journals to tell its classic tale. One of the scariest sections of the book was the “Captain’s Log” of the Demeter, the ship contracted to transport Dracula’s coffins to London. Focusing on those often glossed-over passages is good idea for a fresh take on the legendary vampire, but the results are somewhat mixed in Andre Øvredal’s The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which opens nationwide tomorrow.

Obviously, this voyage will end badly, especially for Captain Elliot. It is too bad, since he just announced his retirement. Their journey starts promisingly, except for the local Bulgarian seamen, who freaks out at the sight of their Dragon-stenciled cargo. He will be replaced by Clemens, a trained doctor eager to return home after knocking around the Balkans.

Clemens gets on famously with the Captain’s grandson Toby (whose life he saved) and mostly passably with the rest of the crew. However, tensions start to rise when their livestock is mysteriously slaughtered. Clemens comes into more direct conflict with cruder, more superstitious crew members, when he insists on nursing an emaciated stowaway back to health, after they discover her buried half-dead in their strange dirt-filled crates. Obviously, she was supposed to be food for the vampire now hunting the Demeter crew.

The Dracula of Øvredal’s
Demeter deliberately resembles Max Schreck in Murnau’s Nosferatu, which is a shrewd aesthetic choice for a film partially conceived as Alien on a 19th Century sailing ship. The vampire makeup applied to Javier Botet is appropriately monstrous and creepy. A distinguished looking gent in a cape just wouldn’t work in this context.

Frankly, the best part of
Demeter is the gothic look of its period production. The design team (including production designer Edward Thomas and art director Marc Bitz) create a richly detailed shipboard environment, showing us all the narrow passageways and rat-infested chambers of the Demeter. The ship is cool, in a dank, uninviting kind of way.

Unfortunately, screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewitz depart from established lore in distractingly annoying ways. No longer does the sight of the cross hold any power over Dracula. This does indeed seem to reflect an ugly anti-Christian bias, considering Joseph the abrasively Catholic Filipino cook, is the first rat to abandon the ship—and the audience is not expected to feel sympathy for him, when he gets his gory comeuppance.

Of course, grizzled Liam Cunningham is perfectly cast as the grey-bearded Captain Elliot. It takes a lot of convoluted explaining to justify Clemens presence on the Bulgarian docks, but it is worth the contortions, because Corey Hawkins makes a smart and manly lead. The two of them are formidable screen presences, who can stand up to all the monster effects and stormy seas crashing all around them.

There is a lot that works in
Demeter, like the knock-on-wood motif. Bear McCreary big crescendoing score also represents some of his best horror film music to date. Yet, the film’s rejection of traditional gothic values leaves it hollow at its core. The nearly two-hour running time is also a little too long. Stoker’s “Captain’s Log” passage were so tense and scary, because they moved so quickly, relating how one crew member after another inevitably disappeared each night, under terrifying circumstances. Recommended more for serious Nosferatu fans rather than casual Dracula viewers, The Last Voyage of the Demeter earns a mixed and conflicted review when it opens Friday (8/11) in New York, including the LOOK Dine-In Cinemas on W. 57th.