dir: André Øvredal
How do you do a new movie version of Dracula without telling people it’s about Dracula? You do what they did here, and don’t even mention his name, just like several years ago where Ron Howard made a new film version of Moby-Dick without telling anyone, and called it In the Heart of the Sea.
I would also further go on to argue that a title that generic helps no-one, absolutely no-one. I have a particular dislike for these recent titles for things that are simultaneously very specific and very abstract at the same time.
I am still trying to wrap my head around All the Light We Cannot See. Yes, I get what it means in the context of the story (blind woman in Nazi France, radio waves), but on the other hand, who fucking cares? And we can’t see it, because it’s not light.
That’s a different fight, a different pointless battle to get energised over. The Last Voyage of the Demeter, is a very specific title about a place, being a ship, that presumably never sails again. We are meant to ask ourselves “Um, I wonder what happened to the Demeter and its crew?”
Well, we get to find out, if we can make it through a stylish two hour horror flick. The film starts with the stately, portentous titles that inform us what we are about to watch is taken from the logbook of the Captain of the Demeter, but then it spoils the illusion, the necessary suspension of disbelief, by telling us that it’s a chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
If you’ve ever read it, you would know how different it is from the chapters that come before and after. The gothic potboiler aspects of the rest of the novel are contrasted with the difference in approach that arises from the difference in perspective. Captain Elliot, the captain keeping the log, hasn’t read the preceding chapters, and doesn’t know what’s going on. We know, but it’s a complete mystery to him for most of the chapter.
A ship is making a journey from the port city of Varna, Bulgaria, to London. Transporting boxes, some of which have a strange dragon-like sigil on them.
How could you find a way to fuck something as simple as that up? Well, they find a way.
Almost before the journey even starts, concerned sailors (ie. oddly perceptive idiots), start talking about stuff being doomed, journeys, ships and people. Some of the people who carried the boxes to the ship stand around looking angry / hungry / confused / scared / swarthy, and I couldn’t tell if it was because they were Romanian, or because they were meant to be Romani / Tzigane people.
I don’t remember why they work for the evil villain, but I’m sure the reason was probably racism?
No Romani people were hurt in the making of this film, but one of them, overreacting terribly when he sees the sign of the Count on a box, nearly gets a boy killed with his incompetence.
That poor boy… (Woody Norman). He was in another troublesome horror flick I watched last week being Cobweb, so because of his enormous eyes he can do the kid in distress thing very easily. He is a pretty good actor, and was so great in C’mon C’mon, a great film I saw a couple of years ago that completely disappeared from the public consciousness even if it starred Joaquin Phoenix.
But less about that film, more about this one. Okay, so there’s a bunch of people on a ship, it’s sailing to England, it’s going to take a bunch of weeks, and then horrible things start happening. Our character in the story is not Dracula, it’s not the boy, and it’s not the Captain. It’s Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a doctor who blags his way onto the ship after helpfully saving the boy from being crushed.
Clemens is a man of science who wants the world to make sense. But he’s also a protagonist in a horror film, so his job is to dismiss everyone else’s superstitious nonsense concerns, but then confirm that the thing that shouldn’t or couldn’t be happening actually is happening, and why.
What is happening… Well, along with the boxes from Transylvania containing soil from his castle, there might also be someone in one of those boxes, coffin shaped as they are. So when someone or something starts either draining people of their blood, or just ripping them apart, we can assume that someone wishes the crew of the Demeter.
It's not the Captain’s fault. He (the great Liam Cunningham, probably most famous for being exceptionally Irish and for playing Ser Davos in Game of Thrones, just wants to finish this last voyage, and retire. He also probably cares a great deal about the young boy on board, seeing as he’s his grandson. He also seems to get along well with his second in command, Wojchek (David Dastmalchian, not playing a weirdo / lunatic for once), whom he intends to make captain after the voyage.
All these people, with their plans and such. Do they not know they’re in a horror flick?
One of the boxes that has split open and poured its content unto the deck reveals more than just creepy grave soil. There is a sickly woman (Aisling Franciosi) in the dirt. For some reason.
Strangely, despite not knowing what her blood type us, and just giving her his own blood, Clemens determines that she has some kind of disease, and that his blood will help her out. Luckily, it helps, but it really shouldn’t. When she recovers enough, she gets to explain that something else is on the ship as well, and it’s going to get everyone.
I think her name was Anna? Whoever she is, like in the only other thing I’ve seen this actress in, being Jennifer Kent’s masterful The Nightingale, all she wants is revenge. Revenge! For what’s been done to her, for what’s been taken away.
A whole other number of people are going to die before this thing is over, we all know that, but we also know that this is like the 7th chapter from Dracula. There are plenty more chapters in the book that come afterwards that never mention whatever did or didn’t happen on that fateful journey, where more and more people died before the ship runs aground during a storm at Whitby. So it’s a self-contained story insofar as something picks off the crew of the Demeter, until it no longer does.
In really stark and obvious ways this is pretty much like any monster flick where a bunch of people get trapped on something and are picked off one by one. It’s hard not to mention Ridley Scott’s Alien, which didn’t invent this plot, but did really well with it in a way that spawned tens of thousands of imitators. But for me the fact that it’s set on a sailing ship, even at a time where steam powered ships and ironclads have taken over from the wooden ones, gives it an old world charm to go along with its very old school villain.
If you’re wondering what version of Dracula we’re going to get here, it’s very much the Nosferatu style, monstrous / hairless cat / bat-like version, way more monster than man. And that’s fine for this update / remake / offshoot. The charming urbane version of the Count wouldn’t at all have gone with this telling. This is the wild, movie-monster version, who’s smart enough to know how to ration his prey (to last the journey), but little more than that. I think he has like a line of dialogue towards the end of the film. Other than that, it’s mostly blood-curdling shrieks.
Clemens is mostly treated indifferently or with disbelief by most of the crew, being ignored until it’s too late; Anna is regarded as a pariah, but mostly because she’s a woman on a ship, which is considered to be inherently bad luck.
Woman onboard? Everyone will die!
I think this flick mostly works at what it sets out to do. I don’t know that it makes sense to imply as they do at the end, that another flick could have been made to continue this story, because we know that story, and it has nothing to do with the survivors of the Demeter banding together to rid the world of another monster. But I thought it was a decent take on this, which incorporates many of the other depictions but works on its own merits as well.
As a horror flick, well, there are a lot of killings, there are a lot of people invoking the Lord’s name, and mostly in vain, because they get butchered anyway, but I think knowing that there’s nothing they can do against this chap actually adds to the story. None will be spared, the good, the young, the old, ladies and children first, none shall be spared his wrath. Everyone being doomed is not a fatal flaw, especially in a horror flick, because most people are doomed in horror flicks, the only question is how and why, and even those don’t always have to be answered.
They spent twenty years trying to get this made, only for it to completely bomb at the box office, but hey, I enjoyed watching it. I hope the people who made it aren’t too disappointed.
You all did okay. Don’t feel bad. You’ll get ‘em next time.
7 times I wondered if Dracula gets seasick with a tummy full of blood out of 10
“God seems to have deserted us.” – you and all the rest of us, too - The Last Voyage of the Demeter