Among the many adaptations of Bram Stoker’s classic novel, none have ever focused on just a mere chapter. Adapting the chapter consisting of the captain’s log of the doomed ship, the Demeter, unknowingly carrying a cargo crate that just so happens to be the coffin of Count Dracula sounds like lighting-in-a-bottle for a successful genre film. Directed by Andre Øvredal, one of the better genre filmmakers to emerge from the last decade of filmmaking, see his breakout hit Troll Hunter or his enormously creepy The Autopsy of Jane Doe as proof, the long-in-development The Last Voyage of the Demeter comes after Universal’s many failed attempts at establishing a Dark Universe. However, Øvredal’s film adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark used its period setting to winning effect, crafting amblin-style adventure and dark horror to both critical and commercial success. The Norwegian filmmaker’s latest excels in establishing rich atmosphere, but fails in creating any memorable scares.
Director Andre Øvredal is clearly aiming for a contained thriller in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Alien, with crew members getting picked off one-by-one in an enclosed environment. Even the portrayal of Dracula as a more primal beast than the cape-donning count feels more in line with the xenomorph than the on-screen portrayals by Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman. Øvredal, an accomplished craftsman of building tension through atmosphere, evokes a strong mood early on. Backed by lavishly-created sets and production design, the rich, Hammer-style atmosphere feels tangible and gives the film an old-fashioned sensibility.
Not unlike this year’s other Dracula-starring Universal title Renfield, the legendary count is easily the best element of the film. Javier Botet’s portrayal of Dracula, a more beastly depiction of the character, is effective and offers an impressive blend of practical make up effects and cg work. Øvredal uses Botet’s physicality well, allowing the performer to feel like an actual presence aboard the ship, rather than an anonymous creature.
Øvredal’s intentions are certainly there, as is plenty of his expected filmmaking craft, however, the thin characters and lack of any genuine scares dull the films firm mean streak. The sluggish pacing greatly weighs the film down as well, running at a beefy 118 minutes. The pacing ultimately hinders much of the film’s urgency with tension largely dissipating for sizable chunks of the runtime. Øvredal also aims for a somber tone, focusing heavily on the despair and grief among the crew members. While it’s admirable focusing on character over carnage, none of the characters are particularly memorable or offer anything fresh to the genre. By the time the film reaches its long-winded conclusion — including a putrid attempt at a sequel set up that’s simply unearned and goes against the central conceit of the film, you can feel Øvredal greatly overreaching.
The ensemble cast is nicely assembled with sturdy character actors such as Liam Cunningham and David Dastmalchian. Corey Hawkins stars as Clemens, a doctor who wins a spot aboard the ship, seeking a new life for himself in London. The Nightingale‘s Aisling Franciosi is Anna, a stowaway found unconscious, as she was used as Dracula’s personal blood bag. Woody Norman — see him in the excellent new horror film Cobweb — is the adventurous young grandson of Cunningham’s Captain Elliott. The performances are all strong, with Dastmalchian, in particular, bringing a sense of gravitas to his role. Dastmalchian, a long-time “that guy”, is finally given a strong platform this year with notable roles in Rob Savage’s The Boogeyman and of course, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Composer Bear McCreary’s ominous score is grand and nicely compliments Øvredal’s gothic vision.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter reaches for gothic Hammer horror vibes, and has the production and value and cinematography worthy, but lacks any genuine scares. Øvredal’s lavish and spooky film is too long-winded and one-note to deliver anything meaningful or truly scary, even.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is now playing in theaters.