The Last Voyage of the Demeter is an atmospheric horror story, slightly old-fashioned in its focus on tone over gore, that almost works because of a consistent mood of pure dread and hopelessness. As far as suspense goes, well, the concept certainly has its limitations. After all, the audience knows where this must be going. Based on one chapter of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, it follows the doomed crew of the ship that (inadvertently) brought Dracula from Romania to England. In design, it is a fairly basic monster movie. The cast is assembled in a confined space where a horrific beast can pick them off one by one. It is only intermittently tense, but director André Øvredal effectively maintains an ominous feel, making the ship seem like a tomb of sorts for its ill-fated inhabitants.
This isn’t a traditional Dracula story because he isn’t a character, so much as a demonic specter hanging over everything, popping in for the occasional quick scare. He is not a suave, charismatic nobleman. He is more of a humanoid bat, with sharp fangs and long claws. There is nothing graceful about this Dracula. The ending creates the possibility of a sequel, where the beast hides as a man. I am not sure it is necessary to make that movie again. The Last Voyage of the Demeter (110 minutes, not including the end credits) isn’t must-see horror by any means. However, it is a well-made production of a part of the tale that hasn’t fully been told onscreen before.
The signs are bad before the Demeter even sets sail. The locals refuse to board and warn the crew of their impending fate. Then, once the boat hits open water, all the livestock is found slaughtered. Then, a stowaway is discovered, a woman seemingly suffering from some sort of blood-related illness. Still, the men remain committed. They can’t stop at a port or they’ll lose their bonuses!
Even though the characters are paper thin and the path of the plot is largely given away by a prologue set four weeks after the bulk of the story, Øvredal uses classic methods to give viewers the creeps. A lot of Last Voyage takes place on deck, sometimes in the dark of night, as the men do their jobs. Of course, we know when Dracula likes to attack. Unfortunately, the boat is too small to get a lot out of as a location.
Instead, Øvredal gets great mileage out of sounds. It is established early on that sounds on the Demeter can carry, so, if you need to get someone’s attention, just bang on a part of the ship and they will come find you. Knocking from somewhere in the darkness is used several times to drum up either a real scare or a jump scare. Footsteps can also be loud and foreboding. The sound design is the best aspect of this. The water is quiet enough that the crew (and the audience) can hear unsettling things. The soundtrack is the usual thriller music, yet the moments without any music is when this approaches tension.
Coming in, I wondered how The Last Voyage of the Demeter could be anything besides Alien on a boat in the 1800s, with an inevitable conclusion. The answer is that is exactly what this is. But movies are not about their story; they are about how they tell their story. In this case, the style makes up for a lot. Nearly two hours is way too long for what it has to offer, the attack scenes get pretty repetitive and I think I have already forgotten everything about the characters (not that there is a whole lot to remember). This proves just how important mood, tone and atmosphere are in horror because I am still kind of close to recommending this. They sure did some cool stuff with sound and lighting.
2¾ out of 5
Corey Hawkins as Clemens
Liam Cunningham as Captain Eliot
Aisling Franciosi as Anna
David Dastmalchian as Wojchek
Woody Norman as Toby
Directed by André Øvredal
Screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz