The Last Voyage of the Demeter is more than “Dracula on a Boat.” I first read “The Captain’s Log” chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula in a college class called “Imperial Horrors, Postcolonial Hauntings.” Like everyone else, I had twenty years of cultural associations tied into the character of Dracula, but to read that text is to immerse yourself into an isolated, bleak world devoid of all hope. It lives up to expectations!
I had the same hope going into The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023), and while many critics felt underwhelmed by a repetitive storyline, I thought director André Øvredal infused the narrative with a great deal of gothic terror. By weaving his Dracula tale with empathetic characters, gorgeous visual design, and lots of bloody goodness, Øvredal elevates the film past its “Dracula on a Boat” moniker.
If you’re concerned about spoilers (minor or otherwise), you can leave my review at that ^ for now and head out to your local theater. My thoughts will be here to read upon your return. However, if you’d enjoy a more detailed opinion before you spend your hard-earned dollars, read on:
The Demeter’s Doomed Voyage
The Last Voyage of the Demeter follows a crew transporting a shipment of crates from Bulgaria to London. Unbeknownst to them, one of these crates carries Dracula as he seeks passage to the big city in order to expand his bloodsucking empire. After discovering a stowaway on board, the crew starts getting picked off one-by-one.
For the crew, the mystery of their assailant is as dense as the fog surrounding the ship. The audience, however, knows the ending already–everyone dies (or do they?).
Øvredal is aware of this and makes up for it by crafting characters that inspire the audience to root for their survival even though their deaths are a foregone conclusion.
The Crew Makes the Ship
At one point, the Demeter’s doctor Clemens (Corey Hawkins), shares that his father believed a ship is made up of the stories of its crew. This crew is led by Captain Elliot, played by Liam Cunningham, whose voice makes me want to curl up against a roaring fire with a squat glass of brandy and a pipe. The good captain looks forward to retirement when he will pass leadership duties onto steadfast first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian).
Horror fans will be excited to see Dastmalchian, who continues to champion the genre through his recent work in The Boogeyman, Late Night with the Devil, and hosting Fangoria’s Chainsaw Awards.
Fourteen-year old Woody Norman stands out as Captain Elliot’s grandson Toby, who functions as a companion to Clemens as he acclimates to life on The Demeter. And Jon Jon Briones plays Joseph, the ship’s devout cook who is the only crew member with the wisdom to scram after witnessing Dracula indulge his hangriest insticts.
Javier Botet’s Dracula Is Creepy and Cruel
Javier Botet takes on Dracula, adding the legendary bat-man to his impressive oeuvre of creepy horror creatures that appear in His House, It Chapters 1 and 2, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (also directed by Øvredal), Game of Thrones, Slender Man, Insidious, Alien: Covenant, The Conjuring 2, Crimson Peak, the Rec franchise, and more.
While many interpretations of Dracula frame the count as depraved yet seductive, Botet’s version is more primal; he leverages his height and physicality to contort and enhance the character’s intimidating and frightening presence. And, boy, is he sadistic! Not only does this Dracula stalk and entrap his victims, but he also taunts them.
An especially unnerving scene features a crew member begging for his life, only for Dracula to mockingly repeat the phrase “Please no!” back to him in a dusty, archaic voice that feels like some ancient sound that hasn’t been heard in centuries. In my opinion, it’s the most unsettling moment in the movie!
I Wish There Was More Dracula in The Last Voyage of the Demeter!
Dracula may be too busy smashing heads and ripping out necks to reconnect with his humanity, but somehow he still feels underutilized. Fog and darkness conceal his body in many of the shots. Up close, Dracula’s design combined with Botet’s skilled performance mesmerize, but the creature is not nearly as impressive in action thanks to some lackluster CGI.
This highlights Øvredal’s balancing act re: Dracula screen time. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the crew never really sees Dracula. Leaving the vampire out of Demeter would be a clever artistic conceit, evoking its own kind of dread and terror. But audiences expect to see Dracula when Dracula is in the story, and Øvredal loves monsters, knows how to film them, and can trust Botet as his frequent collaborator to deliver. For me, he erred too far on the side of obscuring the centerpiece of his creation, but it’s still dazzling to behold!
Captain Elliot’s Wise Words
When discussing how to spend his share of the crew’s transportation fee, Doc Clemens says he doesn’t care about possessions and just wants to understand the world. Captain Elliot responds, “Perhaps it is not meant to be understood but rather experienced and accepted.” Clemens responds, “Perhaps. But I need to get to the heart of it.”
For me, this encapsulates what it feels like watching Øvredal’s gothic horror unfold. Like much of the Norwegian filmmaker’s work, meaning is derived from visceral imagery that elicits emotions like fear, devastation, and unease. The heart of The Last Voyage of the Demeter is the way it sinks its teeth into you the more you try to resist it.Become a Patron!
Images via CineMaterial and iMDB, and used solely for review purposes.