There’s a crucial lesson to be learned from The Last Voyage of the Demeter, the new horror movie based on Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel. It’s not about ethics, morality, or even basic survival. No, more than anything, this film is a pristine example of how NOT to do an adaptation. From the very first line of text on the screen to the painful, eye roll-inducing conclusion, the final product shows itself as something that should be featured in filmmaking and writing classes for years to come as a prime exercise in getting it wrong.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t all that excited for this picture, as I featured the trailer in this month’s edition of TFINYW, but I give everything I see a fair shake, and despite any initial misgivings, I still want to enjoy what I end up seeing, even if it’s ironically. However, this is just a disaster. It’s two hours of futile attempts to scare, shoehorned and manufactured pathos, and terrible effects. Worst of all, it’s just plain BORING!
There are different schools of thought when it comes to fidelity to source material in adaptations. For the most part, I’m not a stickler for accuracy, as long as there’s a compelling story on the screen, and it doesn’t rely on your knowledge of said material to understand what’s going on. There are exceptions of course, but that’s basically my default.
The first major problem with Demeter, however, is that there’s not enough on the original page to adapt. As the film itself notes before the opening scene, this whole affair is based on the “Captain’s Log” chapter of Dracula. If you’ve never read the novel, this particular chapter is only a few pages long. You can read the entire thing in the time it takes you to read this review (maybe twice). Half of the chapter itself has nothing to do with the story we watch on the screen. Quite literally, the entire basis for this feature length motion picture is but 19 paragraphs.
This can scarcely be called a true adaptation, because there’s almost no actual content. So why even bother with it rather than just creating a “new” vampire story? At best, I can only come up with two possibilities for screenwriters Bragi Schut, Jr. (who wrote the first draft spec script in the 90s before the project languished in Development Hell for over two decades) and Zak Olkewicz (Bullet Train, Fear Street Part Two). One is that they wanted to cash in on the association with the classic horror franchise. The other is that they feared being accused of plagiarism like Nosferatu. That’s all I can think of, because outside of a few names, this has as much to do with Dracula as Count Chocula.
The next pitfall is basic plot structure. Again, before we even see a single frame of film, the onscreen text torpedoes the dramatic potential by telling us that the Demeter was a doomed vessel (as if the phrase Last Voyage in the title didn’t give it away) and that this was the ship that, in the novel, transported Count Dracula from Bulgaria to England. So before one line of dialogue is uttered, we know that there are only two possible outcomes. Either everyone dies, or a bullshit contrivance is created so that someone can survive unbeknownst to those who discover the wreckage of the boat, because we all know that Dracula makes it to England. In essence, no matter what unfolds, he wins. As such, there’s nothing to get invested in as a viewer.
In rare cases like Titanic, there is drama in a scenario where we already know the basic historical ending, but you have to create a compelling scenario to hook us in. That movie started with the discovery of the Heart of the Ocean necklace, the drawing of Rose, and Gloria Stuart seeing the news report so that she can get in touch with Bill Paxton and tell him about her experience on the ill-fated luxury liner. Yes, we all know the ship sinks, so James Cameron et al knew that there had to be a reason to care. The human interest romance gets the audience in, and the grand scale, performances, production values, and effects take things from there. With this picture, your only hope is that one of the random characters introduced is interesting enough for us to give a crap about what happens to them, or that Dracula himself is a fun antagonist. Sadly, those hopes fade very quickly.
The tonal confusion only continues as we get into the plot. Billed in text as being the story of what happened to the ship and her crew, we finally get to the main story through narration by Captain Elliot, played by Liam Cunningham. He’s a fine actor, but after Game of Thrones, he is inextricably linked to Davos Seaworth, so casting him as a sailor only makes us yearn for a better piece of media. Since his voiceover sets events in motion, the reasonable expectation is that the film will proceed from his point of view, which makes it all the more frustrating when there are so many scenes and conversations that he’s not a part of. It’s his log that tells the tale, such as it is, so of course let’s focus on so many other people that aren’t him, developments he’s not privy to, and entire sequences of events that don’t involve him at all. Why frame this through narration if you’re not going to adhere to the perspective of the narrator?
No, the real lead character is Clemons, a doctor played by Corey Hawkins, yet another fantastic actor wasted in a nothing role. He happens to be in Bulgaria when the Demeter needs extra hands. Initially rejected by first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian, apparently told to channel Boris Badenov for half his performance, only with less rasp) for being too scrawny, he’s given a spot on the ship when one of the new hires notices a dragon symbol on the crates being loaded onto the ship. Seeing it as a sign of evil, the sailor scarpers, opening a spot up for Clemons, who conveniently is on the scene to deus ex machina another character out of danger.
This is just horrible writing, and it only gets worse. There’s no reason to create this idiotic conceit just to get Clemons on the boat. We already know Dracula is on the ship. The text told us. There’s no need to set up ominous shots and scare someone away after two minutes of screen time. It’s just pointless padding. Moreover, as our ostensible lead, the script tries to cram in character exposition for Clemons, like the fact that he was in Romania and Bulgaria because despite his education, he couldn’t get a job as a doctor because he’s black. Oh yeah, that’s what Dracula was always missing, an overt racial component! You mean there were racists in 19th century Europe? Stop the fucking presses! I hate giving credence to culture war dipshits, but when you go out of your way to create a social justice pretext that has nothing to do with the story, you only have yourselves to blame when the mouth-breathers accuse Hollywood of being too “woke.” Finally, just for good measure, towards the end the narration shifts from Captain Elliot to Clemons, which means that even the actual storytellers can’t figure out who should tell the story. Fuck me!
Anyway, once the Demeter is loaded up with Drac’s crates of Transylvanian soil and we’ve been properly introduced to all of our eventual corpses — an absolutely mind-numbing exposition dump sequence spearheaded by Toby (Woody Norman from the brilliant C’mon C’mon), the captain’s grandson — the vessel sets sail and we wait for the body count to start piling up. Absolutely none of the characters has any dimension, merely taking up space and screen time until we in the audience are put out of their misery. One’s generically Irish, another generically Russian. They all fantasize about the big bonus they’re going to get for reaching England early. The Captain is ready to retire. Wojchek is about to take over the ship afterward. Toby’s going to have a great childhood in Ireland. The dog, Huckleberry, will get to run and chase chickens forever. They’re all just lazy clichés about characters so obviously marked for death (even without knowing the ship’s fate in advance) that attempt to wring false pathos rather than getting to the bloody point, both figuratively and literally.
One night, Clemons and Olgaren, one of only two named characters from the source chapter (he’s played by Stefan Kapičić, best known as Colossus in the Deadpool films) notice a figure in the sudden fog on deck during their watch. Later, one of the crates in the cargo hold topples, revealing the barely alive Anna (Aisling Franciosi). Clemons takes it upon himself to provide blood transfusions to her, noticing she has an infection (but notably not sterilizing himself and getting incredibly lucky that their respective blood types are compatible). As she regains consciousness, she tells of Dracula, the vampiric beast of her village, to whom she was sold as food. Now that she’s been freed, he must feast on other sources, including all the livestock and the crew. The rest of the story is a race against time to evade and survive Drac long enough to make it to England. Yawn.
This is the last core fault with the writing, because it’s clear that Schut and Olkewicz are just making this up as they go along. They set almost no rules, and what few they do they refuse to abide by. Dracula is on a consistent feeding schedule, until he’s not. He roams the ship unseen by his victims, until he decides he wants a cheap jump scare even when he’s got the fodder dead to rights (I’ll address this further in a moment). He can transform, pass through solid walls, and fly, but only when it’s convenient for whatever director André Øvredal thinks might make a cool shot. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.
Hell, since this movie wants us to think of it as part of Dracula so badly, here’s one of the more bullshit moments. When one of the crew is bitten and infected with vampirism rather than dying instantly, he’s tied to a mast and bursts into flames when the sun rises. Never mind that the fire effect looks almost as bad as the ones in The Princess, what really matters is that in the novel, sunlight doesn’t kill vampires. It only weakens them. It was Nosferatu, the unauthorized adaptation, that created that trope. The reason this is so dumb is because it gives the crew an out they’re not supposed to have. The climax is a convoluted scheme to kill Dracula, but the solution has already been presented to them. There’s a scene where Clemons and Anna search the ship and find Dracula’s crate, distinguished by its mechanical locks that can be opened from inside and outside. “Now we know where the devil sleeps,” quips Anna. Well, then why don’t you literally wait for daylight, haul the crate up on deck, and then open it with him inside?! PROBLEM SOLVED! Except, you know, they can’t do that, because Dracula has to make it to England for the rest of the book to happen. Because of this, the people otherwise established as being smart have to become incredibly stupid, all for the sake of an underwhelming visual. As I said, fidelity to the source material isn’t necessarily a requirement, but since the filmmakers are the ones trying to make the connection, they should have at least some idea of what they’re actually adapting. They’re trying to glom onto greatness, but they can’t even get the basics right.
And yeah, let’s talk about these effects, because, oof. The CGI is just awful, from the waves, to the sails, to the action sequences where bodies are digitally replaced with rubber dolls straight out of the first Spider-Man movie. But worst of all is Dracula himself. Ostensibly “played” by Javier Botet (Slender Man, another insult to good horror), Dracula is a CG-Eyesore for the ages. His teeth were apparently stolen from Baraka from the Mortal Kombat games, and his overall character design looks like what would happen if Count Orlok fucked Man-Bat. His dialogue, what little there is, consists of nothing more than unintelligible growling sounds that vaguely form words. There isn’t a single trace of the, well, countenance, of Stoker’s iconic predator. There is only a demon, which is probably why he’s almost always simply referred to as “devil” rather than by name. A lot of bad effects are often obscured by scenes in the dark so you can’t fully see how awful they are. But since Dracula lives in darkness, the film bafflingly illuminates him just enough so that you can see just how much money was wasted on a substandard cartoon that’s somehow supposed to inspire fear.
In one of the more inane moments where the script attempts to develop the characters, Clemons is asked what he wants out of life. He explains twice (in case you really wanted to know whatever thesis this dreck tried to get across) that he wants to make sense out of the world, to find ways to explain how everything works and why. It’s an interesting sentiment, and one I wholeheartedly share. But in this movie, it’s beyond a lost cause. Even if it’s a film I’m not all that enthusiastic about, I want it to make sense. I want the story to make sense. I want the characters to make sense. I want the production values to make sense. That’s how I am entertained, and I imagine I’m not alone in that way of thinking.
Nothing in The Last Voyage of the Demeter makes sense. The plot is asinine and based on the thinnest possible link to Bram Stoker’s novel. The characters are utterly without personality, their traits only given the most minimal of lip service to make their inevitable demise seem like an earned moment. The threat of Dracula is not only ineffective, but pointless because we already know that nothing that happens can have any real bearing on his fate.
And then, of course, there are the jump scares. Once again the Jump Fail protocols come into play. Not only is there an overabundance of the cheapest tactic in horror cinema, but they come at the most illogical of times. Hell, the first one is a flash of Dracula’s face zooming at you before the opening titles even come up, like it was a sneak preview montage of banality. The overall project was already floundering, looking like it would earn a C- grade at best. But then the jump scares scuttled it entirely, as there were 13 of the damn things through this snoozefest.
So yeah, just like actual vampires, this sucks.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What vampire movies do you actually like? Did you see the dog die and think, “Oh no, Huckleberry’s Finn-ished” just like me? Let me know!