The Last Voyage of the Demeter

Review by Mike Finkelstein

Bram Stoker's Dracula is, of course, one of the most adapted works in film history. You can find more versions of Dracula (and even more works that reference the vampire character) than just about any other character in fiction (except for maybe Sherlock Holmes). He's popular, and so his story is will trodden ground but just about every production firm out there. It's hard to come up with a new angle on the original story that people haven't already seen.

The idea of The Last Voyage of the Demeter is an interesting one. The Demeter was the ship that took Dracula from Eastern Europe to England, a doomed voyage covered over a handful of pages in Bram Stoker's novel. It's covered as a transition, from one locale to another, and while interesting to see how Dracula made his way to England (and through the crew of the ship, one by one), it's hardly a story you'd think would be compelling on the big screen as it's own adventure. We already know what happens, and even Stoker himself didn't think it was worth more than an extended footnote before the book moved on.

The film, though, approaches the material and finds a way to make it more interesting and more compelling than it has any right to be. The decision to focus on this crew is smart; they're people, with their own stories and lives that were going on before they got, one last time, on this doomed boat. Stoker might have dismissed them as fodder for the vampire mill, but but focuses on these people in their doomed situation, the creators of The Last Voyage of the Demeter manage to craft a sad tragedy from their plight.

Starting in Varna, Bulgaria, Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) and his first mate, Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), have to find new crew members to get a full compliment for the Demeter. They hire three men but initially pass over Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a learned man with boat experience and a medical degree, thinking him too intellectual, and not hardened enough, for boat life. Clemens, though, saves the young deck hand, Toby (Woody Norman), from being crushed under cargo, earning his place on the ship. As he'll soon come to realize, it might have been better if he'd stayed ashore after all.

Once the boat sets sail, things immediately start going wrong. All the rats flee the ship, a poor portent spelling coming doom. Then, all the livestock on board is slaughtered. Clemens blames it in "rabies", but everyone has their doubts. Once a young woman, Anna (Aisling Franciosi), is found stowed away on board with bites all over her neck and arms, the crew begins to suspect there's something else on board with them. A monster, coming in the dark of night, hunting them one by one. They decide they have to make a desperate sail to England before the monster gets them all... or sink the ship so the beast can never make it ashore at all.

The power of The Last Voyage of the Demeter is that it tells a version of the Dracula story from an angle was haven't see before, and it does it in an evocative and effective way. The struggle for the film, though, is that it has to fight not only audiences knowing where the film is going (as it's one chapter of a larger story, all set aboard a doomed ship), but it's own desire to spoil its ending. The film begins with a text scrawl literally saying, "you, this ship is doomed. Also this film is based on a fictional story." That text does more to suck the fun out of the film than anything else. Seriously, don't spoil the story and, to keep us invested in the characters, don't point out right at the start, "lawl, it's all fake, guys." That ruins the vibe of the film.

Once we get past the intro spoiling the film, though, the movie settles into its true form. It's a moody period piece, practically a bottle episode (outside the intro and ending sections), all set aboard the loving crafted Demeter. The film cost $40 Mil to make and you have to think most of that went into the set, getting everything right so the boat felt properly lived in. The setting for Last Voyage does more to get you sucked into the period and setting than anything else about the movie. The ship is its own character, a living, breathing set that groans and shifts and feels real. It's an impressive feat for the film.

And despite most of the characters being mere footnotes in Stoker's book, that's not actually an issue for the film. Frankly, it helps because it gives the writers, Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, the creative freedom to flesh them out and make them into real people. Clemens is a black man and trained doctor who couldn't get work in England because of the color of his skin, and the injustice of the world tugs at his soul. Anna was a girl sacrificed by her village to appease the demon in his castle living above them, but she finds inner strength to fight for the crew of the ship. Each person is more than just the role they play, they have plans and desires and needs and the movie wisely builds them all up so that, when the vampire comes for them, you care about who they were and what could have been for them.

I think the cast does a great job as well, digging into these meaty parts and really finding the souls of the characters. Liam Cunningham plays the captain and he gets to find deep reservoirs of pain as he watches his crew get torn apart, one by one. Dastmalchian plays Wojchek as a hard man, but he loves his ship and dreams of being captain one day, allowing the actor to play to the depths of pain and emotion as he slowly realizes his dream is doomed. Heck, Franciosi's role as Anna is somewhat underwritten in comparison to some other characters (in large part because she's kept in a dirt-filled box for the first 40 minutes of the movie), but the actress is able to build her up into an action hero just via her own performance. It's great.

Aside from the film spoiling it's own existence, the other weak part is Dracula. No offense meant towards Javier Botet, who does what he can to make the monster he portrays into a beast of the night, but the film saddles him with a ton of fake look CGI that ruins the effect. If he spent hours in a chair for makeup that only got ruined by the studio's insistence on doing CGI over top, I wouldn't be surprised. It's fake, in a way that bad motion capture effects can look fake. It has a stagey quality that even the 2011 The Thing would say looked poorly designed. If the vampire had just been done in practical effects I think it would have been far scarier.

Still, there is no doubt that The Last Voyage of the Demeter crafts a deeply moving, and well designed, horror piece around a small section of the original novel. Despite it's high production values, the film didn't do well in its initial release and that might be a greater tragedy than what happens to the crew of the Demeter. This film has an original take on a section of the novel, and it was put out with style and substance. If studios look at his failure and say, "there's no reason to do horror period pieces," then they've learned the wrong lesson. This film nails its period, and its substance, and it might just have been down to marketing, or the film getting drowned out by Barbie, or any number of other factors, that doomed the film about a doomed voyage.

But on its own this is a fantastic, well made take on the Dracula lore. Perhaps we didn't need a film focusing on a single chapter from the larger novel, but if we were going to get it this was just about the best version would could have possibly hoped for.