Based (as the opening on-screen tells us) on a single chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Last Voyage of the Demeter plays far better than that concept might first suggest. Sadly, as the film goes on, it grows repetitive, and elements that feel exciting early on become stale.
A Thing of Beauty
The film’s cold open sets the film's visual tone. Cinematographers Roman Osin and Tom Stern draw viewers into the world of the film with dark nights and even darker shadows created by lanterns and lightning. They contrast that blackness with a golden yellow hue that marks the film’s daylight sequences, which is key for a movie with a nocturnal villain.
After briefly introducing our lead characters while at port, the eponymous Demeter sets sail from Romania to England with mysterious cargo aboard, and images of the vast sea fill the screen. Some of those images paint an ocean of chaotic waves under a sky thick with ominous clouds, while others show a calm, sparkling sea lit by beautiful sunrises.
When the movie uses its visual world to scare, it's even more effective. Early on, shots of the ship’s deck and hull with minimal light invite the audience to play “Spot the Vampire.” Yet under the direction of André Øvredal, these moments never lead up to jump scares. Øvredal wants to unnerve his audience. Several scenes use thick fog, a classic of Dracula stories, combined with the sounds of giant flapping wings to create a sense of an invisible threat that could attack from anywhere.
On more than one occasion, the beautiful sunrises lead up to the spontaneous combustion of recently bitten humans, and the film seems to revel in the detail of their skin burning from the inside out. The Last Voyage of the Demeter relishes its gore throughout, with frequent close-ups of bitten necks, human or animal. The images of gore also meld practical and computer effects well.
Care For Character
More surprising than the film’s beauty or effectiveness as horror filmmaking: it takes time early on to develop its characters and their relationships. Viewers come to care for them enough that, when they perish at the hands (or mouth) of Dracula, it is effective. Øvredal keeps his aesthetic intense in character-centered scenes as well, with an extremely shallow focus that forces us to look only at their faces.
The film’s point of view character is Black Dr. Clemens (Corey Hawkins), whose knowledge of astronomy, along with a daring save of the Captain’s nephew, land him a spot on the crew. Hawkins’s good looks and charisma make him a perfect leading man, and the film deserves celebration for acknowledging his Blackness in a plot set in 1897.
Too Long and Repetitive of a Voyage
Unfortunately, as the film goes on, its formula of scares at night and conversations about how to address the problem during the day begins to feel inert. While the film’s first jump scare plays out beautifully, and several others are effective, by the fifth true scare, the shocks lose their power. The attempts to build suspense before those shocks become powerless.
A plot line about paranoia and mistrust fracturing the crew promises something interesting early on but goes nowhere. The transformation of bitten crewmates into vampires takes far too long to pay off, and by the time these characters return as creatures of the night, their attacks don't thrill as much as they might have half an hour earlier. Though Dracula purists might have scoffed, setting the entire film over the course of a single night would have added more tension.
Horror or Adventure?
Deviation from the source material also hardly seems like an issue for a two-hour film based on a single chapter of a novel. The movie invents Dr. Clemens and several other characters to fill out its narrative, so Øvredal and his writers, Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, feel confident in expanding the material. If only they had felt comfortable condensing it, they might have made a near-perfect vampire attack film.
As it stands, the film plays more like an adventure film with a mythical enemy than a horror film that aspires to launch a franchise (yes, there's setup for a sequel). If a sequel materializes, let's hope it looks as good as The Last Voyage of the Demeter but avoids the same narrative pitfalls.
Rating: 6/10 SPECS
The Last Voyage of the Demeter releases in theaters nationwide on August 11. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.
Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.