The Good Ship Nosferatu
The best I can figure, the first movie about Dracula was the Hungarian production The Death of Dracula released in 1921. From there, the bloody floodgates opened. As of this writing, there are over eighty movies about Dracula. Some are good. Others, not so much!* All of them, to one degree or another, were spawned from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula.
That was Stoker’s seventh novel, and it was a hit. So much so that Stoker enjoyed a lifetime of comfortable success. He seems to have been the Edwardian era’s version of Stephen King. Both were writers with a flair for creativity, both had critics clutching their pearls over books that were “excessively frightening,” and both look like the uncle that would loan you money in a tight spot yet give you shit about it for years afterwards.
Part of the genius of Stoker’s novel is his decision to embrace the epistolary form. Dracula is told to us in the form of journals, letters, and in one notable chapter, a captain’s log. That chapter is brief, yet it concerns a sea voyage that goes extremely poorly for everyone involved that’s not undead. That chapter has been adapted into The Last Voyage of the Demeter, a sturdy creature feature that could have used more moments of creativity.
Clemens (Corey Hawkins) just wants to go home to England. He’s a man of science, a man of considerable intelligence, and certainly an asset to any organization that would have him. He’s also Black, and after having been roundly ignored by the British medical establishment, he traveled to Romania, where a job awaited him as the physician to the King. Only the King immediately fires him due to the color of his skin.**
Being that he’s in the nineteenth century and can’t hop a flight back to Old Blighty, Clemens must use his wits. He talks his way into a job. It’s as the doctor of The Demeter, a venerable merchant ship. Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham) is glad to have him, particularly after Clemens rescues Eliot’s cute-as-a-button grandson Toby (Woody Norman) from being squashed by a crate. What’s in the crate? We’ll get to that shortly. The first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) isn’t thrilled with the addition of Clemens to the crew. Not because he’s a racist, but more that he’s generally sort of a dick.
It’s a bad sign when, after The Demeter has set sail, Captain Eliot announces that this will be his final voyage.*** It’s an even worse sign when all of the livestock on board is mysteriously slaughtered. There’s talk of a mysterious viral outbreak, and Clemens reminds the crew of nautical nincompoops that viruses don’t generally suck the blood out of the victims.
The bad signs just keep coming as the crew attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery. They discover that part of their cargo consists of fifty crates, all mostly filled with dirt. I say “mostly” because they also find Anna (Aisling Franciosi), a young Romani woman. She’s less a stowaway and more an unwilling passenger. Anna knows what happened to the livestock. She knows something else is on board, something very old and very thirsty.
I think we need to give director Andre Ovredal credit for undertaking a tricky assignment. On the one hand, four things absolutely needed to happen in The Last Voyage of the Demeter. They are:
- He could only adapt a single chapter of Dracula.
- He couldn’t kill Dracula at the end of his film.
- The Demeter had to arrive in England.
- The Demeter needed to be deserted.
Since the lone chapter in the novel is not exactly overflowing with rich characterization, Ovredal had to stay within those boundaries. To my mind, he largely succeeded in making an atmospheric creature feature. He began by shooting largely on a physical set, and that decision creates a real sense of tactility. He allows us to feel the great ship dwarfed in the endless ocean, the creaks, bangs, and strange midnight whispers. On top of that is his commitment to making what feels like a loving homage to older Hammer horror. We have fog cloaking the ship, shadows drenched everywhere, a cadaverous figure stalking the luckless crew, gallons of blood spilled, you get the idea. The visuals are evocative, strong, and pleasantly creepy. If you like that kind of thing, and I often do, you’ll be largely pleased with this film.
There are a few nits I feel compelled to pick, and the first is an overreliance on obvious jump scares. I hear you, Imaginary Internet Commenter, and I know that scary movies are meant to be scary. A well-placed jump scare is cool. Lots of jump scares creates a sense of, “Oh, we’re doing this again?” The larger nit involves the crew’s disinterest in fire. You see, a fiery blaze aboard a ship is possibly the most terrifying thing for a sailor to face. Here, we have two instances where a fiendish thingy bursts into flame while being in close proximity to wood and canvas. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, both of those things are quite flammable! Instead, it’s almost as if the fire says, “Eh, we’ve done the burning ship thing before, let’s stick to lighting up a nosferatu instead.” Why am I making a big thing out of that? Because adding fire to the long list of problems the crew has to deal with jacks up the tension. It’s right there, and that lack of attention is strange, considering that Ovredal is a filmmaker who usually considers the little details.
The screenplay by Bragii Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz has been floating around Hollywood for over twenty years. It’s a riff on Alien in which a bunch of people are stalked by a critter in a confined location. I’m cool with that, and for the most part, the script provides us with characters that are fleshed out just enough to be a little more than cannon fodder. This is where my final nit is deployed, and it’s that everything feels a little rote. People investigate strange noises and yell out, “Is that you, Petrofsky?” Spoiler alert, it isn’t! A character refuses to admit the truth of things until it’s Nearly Too Late. I had fun with this movie, but I kept hoping for greater creativity and less reliance on horror tropes.
The cast is committed to delivering a certain kind of performance, one with hushed voices by the light of lanterns mixed with gritty verisimilitude. That fusion of melodrama and realism is not far off from the tone of Stoker’s novel, and it’s the right choice. I particularly liked Corey Hawkins anchoring the film, and he plays a fundamentally decent man whose curiosity about the nature of the world nearly gets the best of him. He’s the saintly yin to Javier Botet’s Satanic yang as Dracula. Botet has, I believe, one line of dialogue. He’s not playing Gary Oldman’s suave chatterbox. Instead, he’s just a little north of feral. That’s fine, since Botet seems to be having a blast skulking, leaping, looming, and generally being off-putting.
You might feel good, bad, or indifferent toward the Wallachian prince of darkness, but I would bet all the money in my wallet**** that you’ve seen a Dracula movie. The Last Voyage of the Demeter is absolutely a Dracula movie. While it has some flaws, it remains a well constructed horror movie that honors its source material. I imagine Stoker would be pleased.
*Is the 1931 version with Bela Lugosi the definitive edition? Your mileage may vary, but I always thought his version was a little dull. There’s a Spanish version that filmed at the same time. To my mind, it’s much livelier.
**Clemens should have come to America, where we have definitively vanquished prejudice (aside from a few isolated incidents that are in no way connected to systemic racism, which absolutely doesn’t exist).
***Boy, will it!
**That’s three bucks. Yes, I still carry paper money like a caveman.