NOC Review: ‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’ Sinks More Than It Scares

In my review of The Boogeyman, I talked about how we’ve been lucky to have such good horror entries to come out in recent years. Even this summer alone, we were treated to A24’s sleeper hit, Talk To Me, and even fans of Insidious came out to support The Red Door. And The Last Voyage of the Demeter seemed like a worthy candidate to follow in those footsteps with a slam dunk for August horror. But alas, this faux-Dracula tale still winds up second (as far as Dracula films this year go) behind Universal’s previous Dracula-inspired story this year, Renfield. And that’s actually pretty sad.

Now I really hated The Boogeyman. It was perhaps the least original horror movie to come out in the past few years. Thankfully Demeter is no where near that bad. And admirably, in the hands of director André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Trollhunter) it dares to be a bit more different than your average modern day horror creature feature, emphasizing tone and anticipation over jump scares. But that frankly means nothing if none of it is compelling, and sadly, Demeter is a snooze-fest.

The story is inspired by “The Captain’s Log” chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A ship going from Transylvania to London is plagued by a series of disappearances and strange, violent occurrences. That’s essentially the story of the film, but the tale takes liberties by making up characters such as Corey Hawkins’ Clemens, a Black doctor who’s trying to find work after being rejected throughout the medical field for the color of his skin. And a Transylvanian stowaway, Anna (Aisling Franciosi) who the crew discovers midway through their voyage.

Credit where credit is due, Øvredal does manage to wring out some semblance of a horror movie from this minor chapter of a classic novel. Not an easy feat. Unfortunately, for a director who’s quite reliable given his impressive previous works, Demeter feels like a missed opportunity and a huge step down. It doesn’t even hit the heights of Øvredal’s work in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which is a movie intended for younger audiences by the way!

The unfortunate thing is that, for all the effort of creating these characters, none of them are the least bit interesting, apart from maybe Hawkins’ character. And because we don’t really know or care about any of these lifeless caricatures, their deaths illicit no real response or reaction. There’s just no impact on us the audience after we see them attacked or mangled by Dracula.

The other reason is, while the creature effects and make up are impressive, any real semblance of the humanity or deviousness we anticipate from a legendary character like Dracula are simply reduced to the hisses and snarls of a beast that almost feels non-sentient. The horror is relegated to make up effects, which I admit are strong, but aren’t enough to save this because we aren’t scared. Make up will only get you so far if the performance is tepid. And here, their Dracula feels that way.

If you take Nicolas Cage’s performance as Dracula in the aforementioned Renfield earlier this year, he gave us a genuinely memorable villain because it was written and performed perfectly. Dracula is a total dick. And Cage’s charismatic and over-the-top performance fed into the theatricality of the character. Here, Dracula has no more impact than watching a cat hiss on screen for two hours, and it greatly diminishes the horror.

The rest of the movie outside of that ends up being even more dull. I appreciate Øvredal is trying to set tone and mood, but it’s hard to do when everything feels so bland and lifeless. Long stretches of people debating and arguing about sea life and fortune in aren’t bad things to add to your movie if they get us invested. But I don’t think they were executed in a way that really made us care about what was happening. So majority of the film I spent just waiting for anything of note to really happen or thrill me.

There are also several logical leaps that the movie bafflingly never addresses. For instance, after several moments where the last of the crew witnesses and understands that sunlight will kill anyone that has been afflicted by Dracula’s curse, they continue to hunt and entrap the beast… at night. When he’s most powerful, and can kill them all. If your plan is to torch the ship and abandon it, couldn’t you do that during the day when he actually can’t get you? Why wait until night for him to kill you all?

Then in another embarrassing scene, the crew is trying to get through a door to save someone, but can’t figure out how to unlock it, even if there’s a giant hole right above the lock. The movie claims that the characters can’t reach the lock. But then someone blows a hole in the door with a gun and opens it. In a life or death situation why wouldn’t that be anyone’s first move?

I found myself scoffing at the silliness of several ordeals like this. But ultimately in horror films I suppose some stupidity is meant to be tolerated. I just expected more from a filmmaker like Øvredal, who really is better than that.

On the plus side, I’ll give the film credit for a few things. The performances are reasonable fine. I maintain my standpoint that Hawkins is such a terrific and underrated actor. And the way his character is presented, and the racial challenges he’s faced are well written. The same goes for Franciosi, who gives a fierce and compelling performance as Transylvania victim, Anna. And it’s also notable that this is David Dastmalchian’s fourth screen appearance this year, and once again this underrated actor disappears into a role. Super happy to see him and proud of the stellar work he continues to demonstrate, as one of Hollywood’s most versatile character actors.

On a technical level, the make up and creature effects are pretty stunning, even if hollow. And the sound design works pretty well too for Dracula’s snarling and feasting, providing guttural sounds of horror that will make the squeamish squirm and writhe disturbed. And composer Bear McCreary does provide a reasonably decent score for the film, allowing the tension to rise and fall naturally, even if the execution is bland.

Overall, while not the worst horror film to come out in recent years, The Last Voyage of the Demeter is certainly one of the most forgettable, which is disappointing for an Øvredal film. While the creature effects are strong, the rest of the movie feels as wooden as the ship they are trapped in, despite the efforts of decent performers. And while the attempt to expand a minor section of an epic novel into a movie of its own is an impressive and ambitious feat, it’s ultimately an exercise in wasted potential that just feels incredibly toothless.

Overall Score: C

The Last Voyage of the Demeter comes out this Friday, August 11.

*This review was written during the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strike. To support the strike, please donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.*

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