The Last Voyage of the Demeter Resurrects Nosferatu at Sea

Let’s begin with a MINOR SPOILER.

If you have seen the trailers for The Last Voyage of the Demeter, you know there’s a very cute black Labrador in it. I know some people for whom the decision about whether to see a horror film hinges on the fate of its canine actors, so here it is right up front: yes your worst fears are realized, but the film doesn’t dwell on it and this event is lumped in with some other plot developments to get us past it as quickly as possible. This dog lover was okay with it.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter, directed by André Øvredal, takes the Captain’s Log from Chapter VII of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and expands it into a feature-length cat-and-mouse horror adventure: the stout ship Demeter, on route from Varna to Whitby and carrying among its cargo a stack of wooden crates filled with earth, finds that its crew is menaced and then picked off, one by one, by a creature that grabs them from the dark and drinks their blood. A Romanian girl discovered in one of the crates (and apparently stashed there by the creature to provide food for the voyage), tells the crew what the audience already knows: the ship is beset by a vampire from her homeland named Dracula, and they are all doomed. What follows is an often-tense but ultimately formulaic back-and-forth between gory vampire murder scenes and “what do we do now?” conversations that grow increasingly frantic as the number of crew members dwindles.

I have avoided reading other reviews of The Last Voyage of the Demeter, but I accidentally found a quotation from Øvredal in which he admits that his film might as well be Alien, set on a terrestrial ship and with Dracula replacing the xenomorph. The narrative problem, as with most prequels or fleshed-out retellings of classics, is that we already know how this is going to end. The image of the Demeter floating and/or crashing into port is one of the iconic scenes in the Dracula mythos, depicted first in Nosferatu (1922) and then again in most filmic versions of the novel, including the 1931 and 1979 versions of Dracula, Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu in 1979, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. The only real question is what the audience gets to see along the tragic way.

To its credit, Øvredal’s film respects this tradition, and one way to view The Last Voyage of the Demeter is to see it as a kind of homage to the films that came before. The violent storm that dashes the ship to its final doom on the rocky shore recalls the opening scene of John Badham’s 1979 Dracula, while the scenes of sailors being grabbed and slaughtered in sprays of blood against rigging and sails bring to mind the Dracula-as-wolf montage in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version. More than anything else, however, The Last Voyage of the Demeter seems to put itself in a conversation with the original Nosferatu.

That film, of course, was the first cinematic version of Stoker’s novel, and it featured a lengthy sequence depicting some sailors falling ill, others creeping through the hold searching for the cause of the disease, and, most famously, Max Schreck as Count Orlok rising from his coffin and then stalking the deck of the ship while the captain lashes himself to the wheel. The Last Voyage of the Demeter takes each beat of this sequence from F.W. Murnau’s classic and expands upon it with a 21st-century budget and one hundred years of fandom at its disposal.

Instead of watching two or three nameless sailors, we now get the story of a tightly-knit crew viewed through the eyes of Clemens, a Black Cambridge-educated doctor who finds himself stranded in far-flung Varna and struggling to find meaning in a racist society where his scientific knowledge is often shrugged off. As Clemens, Corey Hawkins pulls the various threads of the story together, moving easily between hero and social critic and talking about Dracula’s threat the way his contemporary audience might. Other sailors include first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), cook Joseph (Jon Jon Briones), and Olgaren (Stefan Kapicic), all led by Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham) on his final voyage. Woody Norman plays Toby, the captain’s young grandson, and Anna (Aisling Franciosi) is the young woman chosen by her village to be Dracula’s sacrificial victim who helps steel the courage of the ship’s men against an evil she has known her entire life.

A mysterious hand claws a sailor's face.

Since the plot of the film can only go in one inexorable direction, Øvredal has chosen to load up on the detail and atmosphere that Nosferatu and its descendants did not have access to. The Demeter set is solid and deep, with warrens of dank wooden compartments and mazes of sails and riggings for Dracula to almost appear within. Roman Osin and Tom Stern’s cinematography plays up the shadows and lanterns and moonlight and raging crests of waves in an attempt to keep our attention on the tension of moments rather than the larger been-there-done-that logic of the narrative, and the result in a handsome and stylish film that rewards a viewer who cares less about seeing one more Dracula movie and more about how such films continue to experiment, as Murnau’s film did back in 1922, with chiaroscuro and mood.

Perhaps the most controversial element of The Last Voyage of the Demeter will be its creature design. Again paying homage to Nosferatu, Dracula here has the rat fangs, protruding ears, and talons of Max Schreck’s Orlok (and Reggie Nalder’s Barlow from the first television adaptation of Salem’s Lot, if you geek out over that lineage)—but where Orlok was clearly a man with animalistic features, this Dracula is a leathery gargoyle, a half-bat, almost reptilian predator who never speaks, barely stands upright, and rips, tears, and chugs his way noisily through the bodies of his victims. Though Anna suggests early on that Dracula can appear as a man to disguise his true demonic nature, we get barely a whiff of what such a man would look like. Again, to continue the Alien parallel, the story we get here is ultimately one of humans fighting a monstrous amoral hunger rather than a cunning individual with a personality.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a big, well-paced summer movie that is almost always filled with stylish visuals and keeps its frame stuffed with things to look at (its opening scenes of a bustling 1897 European port are especially well done). It takes its time to create extra context for a story we already know, and there are some good vampire effects scattered among fine performances from the actors. Dracula fans looking for a particular, if limited, vision will have a fun time checking off references to earlier films and spending a little more time in that world.

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Written by Wade Newhouse

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