The Last Voyage of the Demeter Review: An Admirable, Indulgent Reinvention

One of the freshest takes on the Prince of Darkness struggles with its bloated run time.

To say that it's a challenge to find a fresh take on vampires would be quite an understatement. Ever since director F. W. Murnau unleashed Nosferatu in cinemas in 1922, an unofficial and unsanctioned adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, there have been dozens of attempts on screens both big and small to do the source material justice. As if official adaptations aren't numerous enough, there have been hundreds of derivative experiences that owe much of their mythology to both what was accomplished in 1922 and Stoker's original novel. With The Last Voyage of the Demeter, director André Øvredal does the impossible by finding what feels like an entirely fresh take on the material, though he also doesn't quite know how to quit while he's ahead, as his expansion of one chapter in Dracula into a feature-length outing feels like attempting to draw blood from a stone. 

In Eastern Europe, the Demeter is bound for London and in need of extra crew, with doctor Clemens (Corey Hawkins) being enlisted by Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) and his first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian). Along the way, animals on board are mysteriously attacked, crew members go missing, and omens lead some of the more spiritual sailors to think a dark force has descended upon the ship. With the opening scene claiming the Demeter washed ashore with no surviving crew, the story chronicles a journey into Hell.

Vampires come in all shapes and sizes and with all manner of mythology, all of which service the essence of the story being told. Whenever a storyteller bends the preconceived notions of a subgenre or archetype too far, more argumentative horror fans will decry how such attempts are a disservice to the "rules" such monsters must follow. By taking the story of Dracula to its roots and emphasizing an overlooked chapter in his history, Øvredal gets the best of both worlds: he is adapting the source material faithfully but filling in the gaps to offer up a new breed of bloodsucker.

As proven with his previous films Trollhunter and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Øvredal knows how to make a monster movie full of adventures and effective frights. With Last Voyage of the Demeter, the filmmaker takes the story of Dracula back to its roots, not only by adapting Stoker's novel but also by channeling the spirit of Murnau. Rather than the romantic and lovelorn Prince of Darkness, we're given a ghastly beast that is merely trying to survive a month-long voyage to London to continue his reign of terror. By casting Javier Botet as the creature performer, we're given an emaciated, towering, and ruthless monster whose desperation is mirrored only in its brashness. This Dracula sticks to the shadows, avoids detection, and lashes out only when absolutely necessary, making effective scares. Øvredal has cited Alien as his inspiration for this tale and those feelings of claustrophobia and isolation absolutely show.

Set in the late 19th century, we're also given an environment that feels entirely fresh for this genre. We've seen plenty of gothic environments featuring Dracula stalking through castles and ancient cities, while modern takes have put vampires in urban and even suburban scenarios. Øvredal manages to make the Demeter feel both like a limitless labyrinth of twists and turns, while also managing to make the audience feel trapped in the vessel. Add to that the many scenes of the ship cresting waves in the middle of horrendous squalls, illuminating both the boat and Dracula himself with cracks of lightning, and the director delivers some of the most evocative sequences of his career.

With the opening scene claiming that there were no survivors on the Demeter, there's not much reason for audiences to invest in the wellbeing of the characters themselves, but by casting the talents of Cunningham, Hawkins, and Aisling Franciosi as a stowaway, the ensemble makes the most of the journey. While we might not necessarily be hoping for their demise, their chemistry and relationships draw us into the story much more than we ever needed to for this movie to succeed. Dastmalchian, in particular, often manages to steal the show as a sailor whose lot in life feels connected to the livelihood of the Demeter itself and doomed right alongside it if they can't make it to London.

While the cast gives us more than what was necessary to make for an enjoyable outing, it's this emphasis on these characters themselves that ultimately sink the movie's pacing and the overall experience itself. Understandably, there's a baked-in system of Dracula hunting at night and the crew trying to figure out what to do during the day, but with a run time of just under two hours, the repetitiveness of these sequences bogs the narrative momentum down like an anchor. Many of these scenes feel like either needless exposition into the doomed characters' histories or feel like narrative wheel-spinning, as there's little effort made to try to stop whatever is plaguing the ship as they instead try to come to grips with what's happening to them. By the time we get to the third act, we're rooting for Dracula to kill as many people off as quickly as possible, as the movie confirmed in its opening minutes the fates of this crew. The final minutes especially feel overlong and like an attempt to circumvent expectations of both the source material and the film's introduction to make for a more hopeful experience. Hopeful for whom, however, feels up for debate.

Dracula has long been a crown jewel in Universal Pictures' lineup of monster movies, yet he's also a character that Universal, and many other studios, fail to find the right approach to. Back in 2014, Dracula Untold aimed to serve as the soft launch of the Dark Universe, though the film's shortcomings not only saw it omitted from the roster, but the Dark Universe itself died on debut with 2017's The Mummy. Even just months ago, Nicolas Cage brought the Prince of Darkness to life for Renfield, and even with Cage delivering a unique take on the figure, his narrative potential was limited and his one-note nature means audiences aren't entirely asking for more.

The biggest compliment that can be given to The Last Voyage of the Demeter and to Øvredal is that they managed to accomplish something unthinkable after Dracula's century of cinematic legacy, which is a Dracula adaptation that threads the needle of both being a tribute to the book that started it all while also feeling genuinely new. Many of the more faithful adaptations of the novel gloss over this specific chapter in the figure's legacy, knowing the limits of the narrative potential of such a premise. By leaning into those limitations, audiences are delivered a dreadful experience that is much more eerie than its predecessors. The drawback, though, is that by not addressing the premise's inherent limitations and expounding on those constraints too much, the movie's momentum suffers strongly. It actually ends up being the teases of the next adventures for any of these characters that feel so frustrating, as the story is, by design, merely a blip in the life of the ghoul, yet seeds are planted that this might only be the beginning of the continued adventures of unexpected characters.

In a cinematic landscape that is dominated by shared universes and crossovers and team-ups and an endless horizon full of follow-ups, The Last Voyage of the Demeter has all the makings of bucking those trends to deliver an unrelenting, contained nightmare. Øvredal does offer multiple glimpses of frightening sequences that embrace the spirit of classic Universal Monster movies or Hammer Films, yet also proves it's possible to have too much of a good thing. The Last Voyage of the Demeter has a number of elements that work in its favor, but these piecemeal ingredients never quite coagulate to reach the premise's full potential.

Rating: 3 out of 5

(Photo: Universal Pictures)

The Last Voyage of the Demeter hits theaters on August 11th.