Review – The Last Voyage of the Demeter

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Overview

Synopsis The sailors about a shipping vessel called the Demeter discover a sinister presence aboard their ship that is slowly killing crewmates and animals, sucking their blood, and threatening their very survival and salvation.

Length 1 hour, 58 minutes

Release Date 11 August 2023

 

Rating R

Distribution Universal Pictures

Directing André Øvredal

Writing Bragi Schut Jr., Zak Olkewicz

Composition Bear McCreary

Starring Corey Hawkins, Aisling Franciosi, David Dastmalchian, Liam Cunningham

It says something about the modern film landscape when a movie releases on video-on-demand just a month or two after its release date. Sadly, the film industry is in a contracted state where only a few movies per year can earn back their budgets adequately, and many solid films are left to scrape by on limited theatrical interest and video-on-demand rentals. 

Among the more recent victims of this trend is The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a $45 million mid-budget horror film that proved a $21 million box office bomb this past August before releasing on VOD just three weeks after it was released. This is a shame, as it has proven to be one of the underrated horror gems of 2023.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Excessive blood, death, and violence, with characters being bitten, their blood sucked from their bodies, and their corpses transformed into monsters. Transformed creatures catch on fire and disintegrate when exposed to sunlight.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language including f***, s***, and a racial slur.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters smoke and discuss alcohol.
Sexual Content: A handful of crude references and brief nudity.
Spiritual Content: The film explores the lore around vampires, which includes frequent references to Catholic iconography and quoting scripture.
Other Negative Content: Some excessive violence and potentially religiously hostile implications.
Positive Content: Strong themes about bravery, sacrifice, and the role of the supernatural.

Review

In the original Bram Stoker Dracula novel, the book’s seventh chapter details a several-page digression detailing the story of the Demeter—a sailing vessel traveling from Bulgaria to England. The captain’s log details a strange series of events, as sailors go missing, reports of a mysterious man come to the captain, storms berate the vessel, and the captain details his final thoughts. 

“On 16 July mate reported in the morning that one of crew, Petrofsky, was missing. Could not account for it. Took larboard watch eight bells last night; was relieved by Abramoff, but did not go to bunk. Men more downcast than ever. All said they expected something of the kind, but would not say more than there was something aboard. Mate getting very impatient with them; feared some trouble ahead … There seems some doom over this ship. Already a hand short, and entering on the Bay of Biscay with wild weather ahead, and yet last night another man lost—disappeared. Like the first, he came off his watch and was not seen again. Men all in a panic of fear; sent a round robin, asking to have double watch, as they fear to be alone. Mate angry. Fear there will be some trouble, as either he or the men will do some violence.”

This marks less than a single chapter of one of the most famous horror novels ever written. And yet—as many of my colleagues have noted—it is prime material for a horror movie in the style of Ridley Scott’s Alien, with its tightly contained space and functionally unstoppable villain haunting corridors as a shrinking group of survivors attempt to find a way to survive.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter feels like a horror movie that should’ve existed long ago, a natural fit into the historic tradition of Universal Monster movies and Dracula stories. It is not a great movie, and it isn’t even the only Universal movie this year about Dracula following Renfield. And yet, this tiny horror movie excels as a solid unpretentious contained horror film. 

The film mostly cuts its plot from whole cloth, only loosely borrowing from the six or so pages of Bram Stoker’s original story. The film introduces characters like Clemens, a Cambridge-educated Black doctor who is searching the world for a place to practice medicine free of discrimination, and who finds he’s only welcome in the demanding world of sailing where the ability to perform a job is more important than your identity or beliefs. 

The only major character carried over from the book is the captain, who serves as narrator and gets many of the film’s best lines of dialogue as a recorder of these events, suffering the pain of losing his loved ones directly to the monstrous devil beneath the decks of his ship. 

The film is not terribly complex or deep. It is clearly derivative of other horror films and puts in few airs about what it is or intends to do. But it excels as the B-movie it is. If the film has any massive failure, it comes in the film’s secularization of the vampire premise. Stoker and all modern interpretations of vampires have an innately theological element, with Dracula’s tendencies and weaknesses all having Christian implications. He drinks human blood as Catholics drink the blood of Christ in the Eucharist. He is afraid of water just as humans are baptized in it. He cannot abide by sunlight because light is a reflection of goodness and divinity. 

The Last Voyage of the Demeter removes this element of the vampire lore. The movie has several implicitly religious characters who—in other adaptations—would be immune to the monster’s advances. Unfortunately, this rendition of Dracula is more of a Nosferatu-style monster-man than a human with demonic powers. He mimics the Bible quotes spoken to him to mock his victims and ignores characters who threaten him with Rosaries. 

This is a shame because the plot itself is about a Cambridge-educated doctor being humbled by the realities of absolute evil and the supernatural, coming to realize that his rationalism and intelligence do not give him a full grasp of the world. This is a theme that cuts against the film’s disinterest in Christianity. 

This cuts into a larger problem in the film that Dracula himself has no rules by which he can be fought. While the crew obviously doesn’t know all of the rules for fighting vampires, Dracula openly ignores vampire limitations about not traveling over water or responding negatively to religious iconography, mostly because he comes off as a mere cinematic movie monster when he is uninhibited like a Xenomorph.

This sadly does rob the story of the depth that would elevate the film above its station as a horror movie. There are allusions to the idea that our lead character’s hyper-rationalism is a reaction to discrimination against his skin color, but this is underdeveloped and not the antithesis of a villain who doesn’t discriminate against his prey.

That said, most of this is forgivable. The Last Voyage of the Demeter is about 85% accurate as an adaptation and works wonderfully as a horror B-movie, much in the style of the Dracula films that came before it. It is a wonderful work of escalation, that lives up to its premise as a movie where you know from the start that doom hangs over every one of these characters. It is a shame that it didn’t do well at the box office, but here is hoping that it can become a minor success during the lead-up to the Halloween season and garner more appreciation!

Positives

+ Solid horror concept and script
+ Solid performances

Negatives

- Underdeveloped religious and racial themes
- Derivative premise

The Bottom Line

2023 has been a fun year for Dracula movies. The Last Voyage of the Demeter offers a lean and mean take on the classic supernatural formula that builds off of the other films that came before it to express a unique premise!

 

7.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comment

  1. Terry Mcgill on October 24, 2023 at 9:17 pm

    Tyler, I agree with most of your review. Especially, what you said about it being a good horror movie taken from the source. I just think it could’ve been better. I like this take on the Dracula mythos, but I still feel like there could’ve been more done. I was left wanting, at the end. It was a nice entry into the Dracula franchise, and if they plan any sequels off of it where Dr. Steward/ Seward not sure? Gases an ever evolving Dracula as he becomes more human, than am in, but as a stand alone Dracula feature, I’m left wanting more!

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