Major spoilers ahead for The Last Voyage of the Demeter. You’ve been warned.
“Still fog, which the sunrise cannot pierce…I dared not go below, I dared not leave the helm; so here all night I stayed, and in the dimness of the night I saw It – Him! But I am captain, and I must not leave my ship…if we are wrecked, mayhap this bottle may be found, and those who find it may understand; if not…well, then all men shall know that I have been true to my trust.”
Such are the words of the good captain of the Demeter, whose terrible luck it was to be Dracula’s ride to England. And such are the words of Bram Stoker, whose timeless novel continues to thrill and scare to this day – and which Hollywood continues to mine for content. This brings us to The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which seeks to set itself apart from all the many, many other Dracula flicks that have come before it by focusing on the story of the doomed ship.
It’s kind of an accepted (although I call it way overused) device to start a flick with the ending. So it begins with the wreckage of the Demeter beached near the coastal town of Whitby, England. Constables rush down to the beach and find one of their own sitting nearby looking traumatized. He can barely speak, much less describe what he’s seen. He turns over the Captain’s Logbook, whose entries tell the terrible tale.
We cut to four weeks earlier – the Demeter sits docked in Varna, Bulgaria, preparing to set sail for England. Captain Eliot (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham) needs to fill a few vacant positions on the crew, so he sends his first mate, Mr. Wojchek (The Suicide Squad’s David Dastmalchian) to scour the local hangouts. Wojchek finds lots of volunteers, including a young man named Clemens (24:Legacy’s Corey Hawkins). An educated man, Clemens says he’s a graduate of Cambridge University and a doctor. He offers his services, but Wojchek isn’t impressed, thinking he wouldn’t be much use as a deckhand.
Wojchek gathers the men he’s selected at the dock. But as soon as they see what the cargo is, several large crates bearing a seal of a dragon, they bail, citing their superstitious beliefs. If it’s bearing a dragon seal, it’s gotta be evil, and they ain’t messin’ with that. Then one of the crates nearly falls on the captain’s young grandson, Toby (Woody Norman), but Clemens saves him from getting squashed. Capt. Eliot shows his gratitude by welcoming Clemens on board. Capt. Eliot also tells Wojchek that this is his last voyage – and a surprised and honored Wojchek learns that he’ll be the new captain.
Everyone boards and Demeter is soon on her way. And as she leaves port, the Romani men who brought the crates to the dock watch and cross themselves, knowing what they’re in for. Meanwhile, Toby shows Clemens around, introducing him to the livestock he’s responsible for and the ship’s dog, Huck. Later, at dinner with the captain and the rest of the crew, Capt. Eliot announces that each man will receive a bonus upon their timely arrival in England. He asks what the men will be spending their money on, and most of them naturally talk of new clothes and women. But Clemens says he’ll be looking to continue his education, saying he needs to understand how the world works, and why it is the way it is.
That night, Huck investigates noises coming from the cargo hold and barks at the shadow he sees moving around. This turns out to be a bad move for the poor dog, as he becomes Dracula’s (Javier Botet) first victim. The next morning, the crew discovers that all the livestock are dead as well. Clemens comforts Toby, who’s naturally upset and feeling guilty, as caring for the livestock was his job.
The men search the ship and are shocked to find a woman inside one of the crates, barely alive. Clemens manages to save her by giving her a blood transfusion. This upsets the crew, as it’s not only bad enough luck to have a black man on board – but now a woman too? Even worse. Clemens nearly gets into a fight with the crewmen, but Wojchek breaks it up by ordering everyone back to work. Toby tells Clemens the woman’s been mumbling in her delirium, and he’s figured out she’s Romani and her name’s Anna (Aisling Franciosi).
Later that night, crewman Petrofsky’s (Nikolai Nikolaeff) on the watch when he hears noises. He sees Dracula’s shadow moving around the deck before being captured, his throat slashed as Dracula feeds on him. The crew finds his blood on the deck, and everyone starts accusing each other of killing him.
Capt. Eliot orders that two men will take each watch for their safety. But that doesn’t work too well, as crewmen Larsen (Martin Furulund) and Olgaren (Stefan Kapicic) are the next to be attacked. Larsen dies but Olgaren survives the heinous attack. They have to tie his flailing body down to the mess table in order for Clemens to treat him.
Meanwhile, Anna’s condition continues to improve thanks to Clemens giving her his blood. She’s able to tell him that there is in fact something evil on board, but of course, he doesn’t really believe her. Even though Clemens sees with his own eyes the bite marks on not only her, but on everyone whose corpse has been left behind.
This includes Olgaren, who, since Dracula left him alive, has started to turn. At night, he busts out of his bindings and goes after Toby, who hides in the captain’s quarters. Olgaren starts ramming his head against the door to break it down. The rest of the crew rush down to save Toby, but it’s too late. Dracula himself has found his way into the captain’s room, hiding in the shadows. He snatches poor Toby and feeds on him just as they bust through the door.
The next poor soul to take night watch is Abrams (Chris Walley). But instead of being attacked by the creature, he gets ambushed by the terrified cook Joseph (Jon Jon Briones), who knocks him out so he can steal one of the lifeboats. He rows away, trying to put as much distance between himself and the ship as possible. But since Dracula can fly, it’s a futile attempt. The crew finds the lifeboat later, having drifted back to the ship with a mess of blood in it.
The next morning, while Clemens gives Toby blood transfusions using Capt. Eliot’s blood, the crew ties Olgaren to the mast. Looking fully ghoulish, Olgaren tells them all that he can see and hear everything – including the blood rushing through their veins. Then the sun’s light hits the deck and the crew watches in horror as Olgaren catches fire. Wojchek has to shoot him in the head to put him out of his misery.
Anna explains things to Clemens, telling him about the castle where those crates came from, and the monster who lived there – Dracula, the bloodsucking son of the dragon. Anna says she was captured and brought on board to be his sustenance until the ship got far enough out to sea that he could freely feed on the crew. And the only reason she didn’t turn was because of Clemens’ lifesaving transfusions. Capt. Eliot wants to make port as soon as possible, but the rest of the crew rejects the idea as it would mean they wouldn’t get their bonuses.
Clemens and Anna open up all the crates, finding them all filled with dirt. But the crate Dracula sleeps in has a special mechanism that enables the lid to slide open and closed. They also find in it an ornate cane with a dragon head. They realize that that’s how he’s been managing to elude them, by sleeping in the crate during the day.
As for poor Toby, the transfusions don’t work, and he’s beginning to look as bad as Olgaren. They wrap him up in a sheet and take him up on deck, ready to bury him at sea. But then Capt. Eliot swears he sees Toby move. They remove the sheet and Toby does open his eyes. Fully turned, he lunges for his grandfather – but being exposed to the sunlight, he catches fire. He nearly burns Capt. Eliot to death as well before they throw his body into the water.
Nearing England, what’s left of the crew worries about what might happen if they bring the creature with them, so they decide to take a stand that night. Anna takes the helm while Wojchek and Abrams watch from the crow’s nest, guns at the ready. But a thick fog rolls in and then the fatal storm begins. Dracula of course appears, but unfortunately for the crew, they realize too late that he can fly, looking like a human bat.
Dracula takes out Abrams first. Wojchek falls from the crow’s nest and through the deck, breaking his leg. Clemens then makes his stand, but Dracula grabs him by the throat. Clemens manages to say he doesn’t fear him, but Dracula eerily replies, “You will.” Anna comes to the rescue, shooting the creature and knocking down the mast to pin him down. Wojchek makes the decision to ensure Demeter’s destruction, hacking through the hull with an axe so the ship takes on water.
Meanwhile, Capt. Eliot ties himself to the wheel and tells Clemens to let everyone know that he stayed “true to his trust.” Then Clemens and Anna jump ship as Demeter gets tossed around and finally crashes onshore. As the sun comes up, Clemens and Anna cling to some of the floating wreckage. But not having had any more transfusions, Anna’s turning. Clemens says he can save her but she refuses, saying it would only prolong the inevitable. As she floats away toward the sun and immolates, Clemens can only watch, helplessly.
As the tragic story of the Demeter spreads through the town, Clemens goes to the local pub. He asks about getting to Carfax Abbey, where the crates were to be delivered. Then he hears the familiar sound of knocking, which the ship’s crew used to use to signal each other. Clemens turns and sees the same cane with the dragon’s head, banging on the floor. Then he sees Dracula, all cloaked up and peering out from under a dark hat. He follows him outside, but Dracula disappears. Clemens vows to pursue him and send him back to Hell.
It’s funny that in all the many film iterations of the Dracula story, hardly any of them include the Demeter’s story, even though that chapter is one of the most beautifully written. So when I first saw the trailer for Last Voyage of the Demeter, I was psyched – finally, an entire flick devoted to just that story.
One of the things I like most about the flick is its cast. It’s A-lister-free, which opens up the leads to actors such as Liam Cunningham, who provides a solid, sympathetic lead in his Captain Eliot. The supremely talented David Dastmalchian gets more lines than I’ve ever heard him have in anything, and he’s awesome. And Corey Hawkins, who I’ve been longing to see in a lead role ever since the unfortunately canceled-too-soon 24: Legacy, finally gets to show off his talent as Clemens. Even though it’s a role that isn’t in the novel, the character is all at once modern and yet perfectly at home in the situation, which makes him a welcome addition as opposed to one just slapped on.
One other thing I appreciated was the fact that the child character, who’s usually nothing but annoying, bratty baggage in any other flick, is both written and acted well. Much credit to director André Øvredal and young Woody Norman for that. And the fact that Toby’s death is one of the most gruesome and brutal of them all shows bravery in the direction and writing, placing truth in the storytelling above the usual expectations.
Øvredal (who also directed a favorite flick of mine, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) also made a smart choice in taking advantage of the R rating, with plenty of bloody carnage and portraying Dracula as only the ghoul version of himself, instead of the suave aristocrat we usually see him as. Terrific makeup work, visual effects and Javier Botet’s performance all give the story a sort of Alien feel, as the monster stalks the crew.
Now one might say that knowing the end of the story before it begins ruins the whole thing – and it does for some stories. But in this case, it’s fascinating to watch the characters develop and battle with both the creature and each other. Even though we know it won’t end well for any of them, it still makes for an intriguing story.
The only major strike against Last Voyage of the Demeter is its ending. It’s drastically different in that not only does Clemens survive, but it also sets him up as a crusading hero who’ll go on to fight Dracula in more flicks (provided that this one’s profitable enough, of course). I found myself torn on this point, as I think the extreme downer ending of the book is the truest one. But Clemens is a great character, and Hawkins has a terrific presence – enough that I would definitely be interested in seeing him continue on.
So while Last Voyage of the Demeter may not be the best or most authentic version of the Dracula story, it’s a refreshing take on it. One that recalls the classic, Gothic melodrama of the old Hammer flicks, and one where Dracula’s the full-on, bloodthirsty, savage villain instead of an antihero. And one where the bravery, vulnerability and integrity of his victims, doomed as they might be, shines through.
Directed by: André Øvredal
Release Date: August 11, 2023
Run Time: 1 hr 58 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures / Dreamworks Pictures