The “Captain’s Log” chapter of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, is so cinematic that it’s surprising that no one has created a film adaptation of it before now. In fact, The Last Voyage of the Demeter was in development for two decades before it was finally brought to the screen by director André Øvredal (best known for his 2019 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark). The supernatural horror film depicts the doomed trip of the Detemer from Transylvania to England, as the crew is picked off one by one by the vampire lurking onboard.
The film opens with the dilapidated ship reaching shore in Whitby, England, to the horror of the local people. One of the officials who makes it on board first discovers the Captain’s log, which narrates the events of the crew’s final days. The movie then cuts to a few weeks earlier, on the day that the Demeter set sail. Seeing Dr. Clemens (Corey Hawkins) and a few others get chosen as crew members feels a bit like watching Jack Kelly win boat tickets in Titanic: you already know that only tragedy awaits.
Once the voyage is underway, Clemens meets the rest of the crew, including the religious cook (Jon Jon Briones), the dignified Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham), the surly first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), the captain’s adorable grandson Toby (Woody Norman), and the ship’s dog, Huckleberry. He sticks out from the more rough-and-tumble crewman as a well-educated Englishman who trained as a doctor at Cambridge. This puts him at odds with the other men until a common enemy unites them.
It doesn’t take long for things to get strange. The ship’s animals are mysteriously killed, and then the crew members become targets for the vampire’s nighttime terror. However, the men are unwilling to stop in a port because there’s a bonus waiting for them if they can make it to London by August 6. A young woman named Anna (Aisling Franciosi) is found in one of the crates that the ship has been paid to transport to London, which are mysteriously full of dirt. She’s barely alive, but Clemens manages to perform blood transfusions to revive her. (If you’re squeamish about needles, this might get you a bit.)
Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz’s script might take on a bit too much – the plot point around Clemens not being able to find a job as a doctor due to being Black feels underdeveloped – but the film does well at building tension. Bear McCreary’s ominous score helps develop the spooky atmosphere, as does the choice to have the ship often shrouded in thunderstorms. Getting glimpses of the creature when it’s lit by erratic flashes of lightning is a genius way to keep us largely in the dark (pun intended) about what it is until later in the film, when the creature is revealed to us more fully. This allows the tension to build, as the idea of the beast becomes even more frightening than the beast itself.
The creature’s design is also commendable, like a scary hybrid of Gollum and a bat, but there’s little sense of the actor Javier Botet, credited with playing Dracula, underneath aside from the strange screeches he emits. The makeup work on the other characters is also impressive, as is the production design, which makes the ship feel very tangible. Tom Stern’s cinematography makes the most of the close quarters of the ship, creating a claustrophobic environment in which the threat of Dracula feels ever-present.
There are flaws that detract from the film’s potential: occasionally, the CGI work is shoddy, and it’s at least ten minutes too long. But the performances of the talented cast are able to save a lot, as is the unique setting and story its telling. There’s a giddy sense of dread in knowing that the entire crew will be picked off by the end of it that keeps you on your toes, always questioning who will be next. While some of the kills are brutal, the parts dealing with animals and children are handled tastefully.
Hawkins does an excellent job as the hero of our story, despite the character being underwritten. His body language portrays that he is more afraid than he is willing to share as he tries to remain the bastion of scientific reason. Franciosi and Dastmalchian also turn in convincing performances, and Norman proves once again that he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation (if C’mon C’mon didn’t already cement that title for him). Chris Walley stands out amongst the crew as Abrams, whose joking nature gives way to desperation over the course of the film, as does Briones, who balances being self-righteous and self-interested surprisingly well.
This is our second Dracula-inspired film this year, and The Last Voyage of the Demeter certainly lands better than Renfield did. It’s a fascinating return to a conception of vampires as horrifically ugly beasts that anomalistically attack their prey rather than the sparkly attractive vampires of Twilight and The Vampire Diaries that have taken over popular culture’s concept of the creature in the past few decades. Øvredal might not have created something that will completely define vampire cinema for years to come, but he did create something unique, born out of a novel over a hundred years old, and that’s worth celebrating.
Universal Pictures will release The Last Voyage of the Demeter only in theaters on August 11.