Earlier this year, the boisterous action comedy Renfield reimagined what the world of a modern-day Dracula might look like through the eyes of his beleaguered assistant. Though the film comes undone the more it moves along and ultimately doesn’t work on the whole, at least it has a fresh take on the material and a few well-constructed gags along the way.
Comparatively, The Last Voyage of the Demeter offers almost nothing of value when it comes to the legacy of Bram Stoker’s timeless creation. An extrapolation of a single chapter from the 1897 landmark novel that gave birth to The Count, the inexplicably 119 minute-long movie is utterly rudderless in terms of narrative conviction.
It doesn’t surprise me that the project has languished in development purgatory a couple decades, but Universal’s decision to theatrically release it during a crowded summer movie season is confounding.
After a cold open capped by a tacky jump scare, Voyage kicks off with Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) and first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) of the transport ship Demeter looking for a few more hands on deck before they set sail from Romania.
After learned lad Clemens (Corey Hawkins) and a couple more relatively able-bodied men join the crew, it’s off to London with a crate branded by portentous insignia in cargo. The mariners seem to have the wind in their sails, literally and figuratively, until hidden stowaway Anna (Aisling Franciosi) appears in the hull and gives warning of a monstrous presence onboard.
Soon enough, scallywags get picked off one by one by an unseen creature who comes out only at night, and the Demeter crew find themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Director André Øvredal had moderate success mining literary horror from Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark in 2019, but where that collection of short stories allowed for ample avenues of adaptation, The Last Voyage of the Demeter constantly struggles to justify its runtime. Since we know Dracula is obviously going to come out triumphant against this crew, Øvredal is not only expecting audiences to suspend their disbelief for just shy of two hours but also to care about these seafaring ciphers.
The cast do what they can, with Dastmalchian giving the most engaging performance of the four primary actors, but there’s barely enough on the page to cover a feature-length storyline, much less character development. It’s hard to know what at the script level convinced these talented performers to come aboard this project.
Not that every single-location slasher has to have a sterling script, but it at least has to have some creative kills and a novel tension to precede them. Unfortunately, Voyage doesn’t have much in that department either, despite a feral and fierce creature design for Dracula that is noticeably different from how we typically see The Count on screen.
Øvredal’s inability to maintain a frightening atmosphere is partially due to an inconsistent visual language between cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Patrick Larsgaard. In scenes of both dramatic conversation and of brutal action, there are cuts made that unintentionally throw off our understanding of where the characters exist in relation to one another. There are also brief lapses in continuity that could certainly be considered amateurish upon presentation, but I’ll give the crew here the benefit of the doubt and assume they were rushed to deliver a final product.
After the Dark Universe franchise imploded in 2017 following the failure of The Mummy, it seems Universal has tried to revive their Classic Monsters in standalone efforts instead of trying to create yet another shared cinematic world. Though the two unrelated Dracula-based films they released this year didn’t work, they have the right idea in trying to consider each character individually and attempt to tell a different story.
A perfect example of this is 2020’s The Invisible Man, which brilliantly recontextualized H.G. Wells’ tale for victims of psychological abuse. The excellent 1999 iteration of The Mummy wrapped its antagonist in a flawless combination of action and adventure.
But if Universal keeps churning out monster fare as ruthlessly unexceptional as The Last Voyage of the Demeter, then their plans to make their Monsters relevant will be dead in the water.
New movies coming this weekend
Playing only in theaters is Blue Beetle, a superhero film starring Xolo Maridueña and Adriana Barraza that follows a recent college graduate who is chosen to become a symbiotic host to an ancient alien biotechnological relic that grants him a powerful exoskeleton armor and superpowers.
Also coming to theaters is Strays, an R-rated comedy starring the voices of Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx set in a universe where dogs can talk and an abandoned dog teams up with other stray canines to get revenge on his former owner.
Streaming on Netflix is The Monkey King, an animated action comedy starring Jimmy O. Yang and Bowen Yang adapted from an epic Chinese tale about an egotistical primate and his magical fighting stick who team up to battle demons, dragons, and gods.