This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
No other monster has enjoyed the cinematic limelight quite like Dracula, a character whose immortality has conjured what seems like an endless array of big-screen adaptations. Yet, the undead rogue has always been depicted as either a suave, seductive killer or as a campy caricature—something Nicolas Cage’s portrayal heavily relied on in the lifeless Renfield earlier this year.
Moreover, adaptations often pick apart and expand on the same portions of Bram Stoker’s canonical tale, unearthing diminishing returns with each subsequent entry. For all intents and purposes, Dracula’s most interesting and iconic elements have been virtually (and ironically) drained dry.
Now comes André Øvredal’s The Last Voyage of Demeter, an atmospheric scarer that leans into the genre possibilities of Dracula with a tale set in a single location, crafting a raw, predatorial iteration more closely related to the Xenomorph than the silver-tongued aura of a Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman. The result is a creation that pulses with a palpable sense of mood and ambiance, then cathartically fulfills through a visceral, straightforward mode of gore.
The story, penned by Bragi F. Schut, Stefan Ruzowitzky and Zak Olkewicz, is based on a single chapter (“The Captain’s Log”) from Bram Stoker’s original that is often omitted from most on-screen efforts, where the merchant ship Demeter sails from the Balkans to a port town in England carrying mysterious crates of cargo on board.
Said, ominous cargo is carrying a hibernating Dracula that spells grave news for the crew, a more-or-less interchangeable ensemble that slowly succumbs to the stalking creature in increasingly bloodier ways.
Øvredal employs a cyclical, stalk-and-kill structure that sees his cast meticulously dispatched by the skulking, bloodsucker on each night of the laboured journey, and it’s one that threatens to lull at times due to its predictable current. However, the film benefits immensely from a strong sense of time and place, with each creak of the ship’s hull transporting viewers to this doomed voyage in the summer of 1897.
The Demeter itself is essentially its own character, crackling with personality, as its cabins and holds become bastions of hope in the daylight and gothic hellscapes in the night. Its charming wooden frame stands in stark contradiction to the steam-powered industrialization of the late 19th century, manifesting a subtle allegory for man’s inability to accept change and progress, clinging to outdated modes of thought to his own detriment—with the Demeter’s archaic masts setting not only Dracula but time against its crew as well.
Moreover, Dracula’s design is also inventively realized, channeling F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu in one moment and Alien (or even Predator) in the next. Much of the creature’s guttural, visceral staying power is attributable to its dynamic practical makeup, as it both towers over its victims and slinks into a minuscule, unrecognizable form in the shadows. Like its inspirations, it’s a monster that is at its most powerful when barely visible, allowing our imagination to take hold and further empower it.
Yet, for all of Demeter’s atmospheric laurels, Øvredal is still reliant on formulaic flourishes, namely jump scares that are further diluted by overly familiar, discordant musical stings. It’s a quality that doesn’t allow the creature or the setting to completely stand on their own, especially since the gory kills that encompass them are so skillfully rendered—brimming with an unflinching, prosaic sense of brutality.
Of the motley crew, Liam Cunningham and Corey Hawkins are the clear standouts as the Demeter’s captain, Eliot, and Clemens, a doctor who desperately wants to understand the world, respectively. Clemen’s ethnicity is a sore point for most of the crew, and his unfortunate lot in life—which leads him to the ship— is rooted in the social and racial constructs of the Victorian era. Yet, these themes are never tackled in an overt or preachy manner, nor is the lore surrounding its incarnation of Dracula. Instead allowing its atmosphere and gory carnage to do the talking, resulting in an experience that, while not teeming with depth, leans into its genre conventions in a mostly satisfying manner.
While this rendition of Dracula may not possess the enduring and calculating charms of other cinematic counts, it’s still one that manages to form its own unnerving, animalistic identity. The film this version of Dracula inhabits bustles with a clever, well-developed sense of tension. Though hampered by some uninspired choices, The Last Voyage of Demeter is a sturdy exercise in atmospheric thrills and a lived-in setting, one that puts a fresh, imposing spin on an age-old figure.
The Last Voyage of Demeter releases in theaters on August 11.