3 ½ stars
I love it when a horror movie surprises me.
I’m not talking about a movie that grosses me out or scares me. And I don;t mean a movie that makes me laugh at how silly it is, or one that bores me.
I’m talking about watching a movie where I think I know the story, and then it takes me down an unexpected, but still totally believable and exciting, path that surprises and delights me. That’s what happened watching director André Øvredal’s latest film, The Last Voyage of The Demeter.
Just about any horror movie fan, and every vampire film fanatic, knows the story of The Demeter. It’s the name of the ship that brought Dracula – Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula – from the shores of his native Transylvania to his new home in England. It’s usually found at the start of a Dracula movie, already wrecked and abandoned on a stormy beach. The villagers go aboard and discover that the crew is missing or dead. The captain, or one of the crew, is found dead, lashed to the wheel, his eyes wide open in terror and his throat torn open. The details vary from film to film, depending on the director and the rating the film is looking for, but if you are watching a Dracula movie and there is a ship either about to be grounded or already smashed on the rocky shore, tradition says it’s The Demeter.
But that’s the outcome, the final resting place for the captain and crew. The details of what happened aboard The Demeter on that fatal final voyage have been given short shrift. The Last Voyage of The Demeter fixes that.
The story starts on the dockside where the last of the ship’s cargo – 50 large, mysterious boxes on their way to the new owner of Carfax Abbey – is being loaded aboard. With the high tide approaching, the captain and crew have no time for the superstitious actions of the cargo delivery team – who cross themselves frantically as they hurry to get away before the sun goes down. They just want to get underway.
Even though the dockside scene is there primarily to introduce and establish the characters, Øvredal lays the groundwork for the tension at the heart of The Last Voyage of The Demeter. He also weaves in little bits of Dracula lore that set the stage for what’s to come, such as the revelation of one of the box’s contents following a dockside accident. Some will see just dirt; others will know it is the soil the Prince of Darkness needs to sleep on.
The cast of The Last Voyage of The Demeter is strong, but before that, let’s talk about the movie’s actual star, The Demeter itself. An excellent article on syfy.com called How they Literally Built a Complete 1800s Ship – and a Half – to Film Last Voyage of the Demeter explains what it took to make the set. Watching the film, you realize how all that effort pays off. There’s a textural feel to the ship that comes across in a way no green screen FX shots could; you can almost smell what it would be like to walk below decks with the crew as they search for whatever is killing the crew. Of course, you wouldn’t do that because Dracula lore tells you what’s down there, but it’s still a fascinating set. Universal should consider turning it into an attraction at one of its theme parks.
In terms of casting, Øvredal fills his film with some impressive talent. Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKlansman) plays Clemmens, a last-minute addition to the crew who brings an outsider’s perspective to the proceedings aboard The Demeter, especially when dealing with the superstitions of seamen. Trained as a physician but unable to practice because of the color of his skin, Clemmens represents the struggle of science to accept the unnatural in the form of a creature who feeds off humans and then turns them into the living dead. It’s a struggle Hawkins brings to life in every scene.
Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) is equally impressive as Captain Elliot, the “old sea dog” who drives his crew hard as they attempt to get their voyage over with as quickly as possible, at first for the bonus they’ll get and then for their very lives. It’s a slow-burn performance without too many showy scenes, but Cunningham, like Hawkins, embodies the character of a strong man losing control of his world with passionate commitment.
Rounding out the trio of top talent in The Last Voyage of The Demeter is the wonderful David Dastmalchian, who has added memorable moments to films ranging from The Suicide Squad to The Boston Strangler. In The Last Voyage of The Demeter, he plays First Mate Wojchek, a man whose belief in life at sea and all that it stands for (including its superstitions and traditions) is absolute. Wojchek’s battle to not accept what is happening onboard the ship feels fiercer than any other character, thanks to Dastmalchian.
No amount of human presence, no matter how well done, will get an audience to cheer for The Last Voyage of The Demeter if the vampire isn’t thrilling, and it is here that Øvredal lights it up. The Dracula aboard The Demeter is a vicious, hungry animal. Period. There’s no clue of the man shape he will assume once he arrives at Carfax Abbey. And that’s a good thing. Too many vampire movies spend too much time creating a Dracula in a tuxedo, a suave sophisticate who can seduce women like Mina and Lucy. There’s usually nothing wrong with that, but the story of The Demeter would quickly become laughable if the Count appeared on Deck dressed like that or appeared at all. The Last Voyage of The Demeter doesn’t need that kind of Dracula.