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  • Writer's pictureKurt Loder

The Last Voyage of the Demeter: Bite Me

Amblin Entertainment Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi in The Last Voyage of the Demeter.

In Dracula, Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 vampire novel, one part of the story is related by the captain of a schooner transporting the titular Romanian bloodsucker from his native Transylvania to England, where he has established new digs. In Nosferatu, the 1922 silent-film version of Stoker’s book, this chapter is covered in a brisk, unfussy 10 minutes. It is a measure of the waddling bloat of The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a new movie telling the same story, that it takes two hours to do so.

The picture was reportedly in development for 20 years, and Norwegian director Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter) must have been happy that the project was at one point acquired by Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Partners. This could be why it’s such a great-looking film—the rich textures of the Spielberg touch seem evident in every swelling wave and sea-splashed deck, as well as the intimate shadows in the hold down below, which is filled with pigs and goats and other livestock waiting to be torn to bloody shreds by a seagoing demon.

The filmmakers have acknowledged that the trick they were hoping to pull off here was an approximation of Alien on the bounding main, with the action set in a sailing ship as claustrophobically isolating as Ridley Scott’s old Nostromo. This sounds promising—who really wants just another straight Dracula riff? But on careful consideration, it should have been clear there would be problems: The vicious space creatures of Scott’s 1979 film were a new kind of terrifying; vampires, at this point in horror history, are anything but—their strengths and weaknesses are well-known. They’ve become a little boring.

The cast is filled with solid character actors, among them the forever busy David Dastmalchian and the warmly dignified Corey Hawkins (The Tragedy of Macbeth), who plays an unlikely adventurer named Clemens. This character, although a Black man, is also a Cambridge graduate and a doctor, and once held a post with the king of Romania (before being dismissed because of his race). Hawkins’s fresh presence grounds the familiar action (there’s not a single “shock” in this movie that can’t be seen coming from acres away), even while he’s compelled to say things like “We are drifting toward some terrible doom.” (It might have been worse—another of the polyglot swabbies says at one point, “Zere is somezing out zere!”)

As fear spreads among the crew about the ship’s strange cargo—an array of crates filled with black soil and maggots—a spunky girl naturally appears. She’s a Romany stowaway named Anna (Aisling Franciosi), whose village has been terrorized for generations by a great vampire (“We call him... Dracula”), and she can feel that he’s onboard. Also unexpectedly in evidence are fond echoes of Disney’s 1950 Treasure Island (a cabin boy with a knife and some action up in the rigging). And if you squint, you might discern some faint references to The Exorcist and The Thing.

Mainly, though, there is Dracula himself, a gray, boney fang merchant here, played by Spanish creature specialist Javier Botet (Alien: Covenant). This is a much livelier neck-biter than the slow-moving Nosferatu of yore, and most closely resembles Reggie Nalder’s hideous “Mr. Barlow” in the 1979 TV version of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” (now being made into a movie itself). But the picture is too tastefully restrained to give Botet the pulpy context that could have enabled him to run free in our imagination. (This is a movie that can’t even work up any good jump scares). With its focus on production design—which has definitely paid off—Last Voyage founders on the shoals of simple, sturdy filmmaking. Which is too bad. There was a time when Botet’s slavering monster might have carried the picture by itself. But that was then, and this isn’t.


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