Most people are familiar with the story of “Dracula,” written by Irish novelist and theater Bram Stoker in 1897. Stoker was a successful theater manager in London, writing on the side. He produced a number of novels and short stories in the melodramatic or “thriller” vein, although they are antiquated by today’s standards. This is true of “Dracula” itself, although by this time it and it’s demonic protagonist have become, as has Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” part of our cultural lore.
Scores of films have brought us a variety of visual interpretations of Dracula specifically, and the vampire in general. They have sometimes focused on specific aspects of the overall novel, such as the characters of Van Helsing, Mina Harker and even the poor enthralled slave Renfield.
“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” focuses on the briefly described ship and voyage that brought Dracula and his native soil from the mountains of Carpathia to Carfax Abbey, outside London.
The story opens with a train of carts approaching the port city of Varna, Bulgaria. Varna is a port on the Black Sea. The cars are heavily laden with crates, each marked with the image of a dragon. In Varna, the merchant ship Demeter waits for those boxes – the last of its cargo. As they are being loaded into the ship, one seaman notices the markings and immediately quits, warning that evil is being brought onboard. The others ignore him.
So begins the doomed voyage of the Demeter. Four weeks later, it will crash onto the rocks of the Whidby coast, and Dracula will have arrived.
Director Andre Ovredal (“Troll Hunter”), along with writers Zak Olkewicz (“Bullet Train”) and Bragi F. Schut (“Samaritan”), have fashioned a horror thriller out of the scant clues left by Stoker.
There are some surprises. In the 1931 “official” screen version of Dracula (also released by Universal), one person survives the crash of the Demeter – the pathetic Renfield. In this version, one person also survives – a last-minute crew member, Clemens (Corey Hawkins – “In the Heights”). But of more interest is the fact that, in this telling, Dracula packed a lunch for the trip: a young woman Anna (Aisling Franciosi). In the original, only Dracula departs the ship – and he wasn’t alive.
After a few uneventful days, the vampire seeks out sustenance by killing all the livestock and the ship’s dog. After that, he turns to the crew. During the day, the remaining men desperately search for whatever is attacking them, and at night they are terrorized by the death that lurks in the shadows. At one point, Dracula appears as an elderly, helpless man crawling from the shadows into the moonlight, only to suddenly leap upon and suck dry yet another sailor. This is reminiscent of something from “Alien” and the director has likened the entire film to a 19th century version of Ridley Scott’s space ship, Nostromo, but at sea. True enough. And there certainly are a number of ghastly deaths. But then, when “Alien” came out, it was likened to people trapped in a dark mansion being hunted by a giant scorpion. Also valid. So what? There are only so many story lines to be told. It is how you tell them that makes for an entertaining tale.
The film is beautifully photographed, the night scenes are eerily effective, and the evolution of the count from decrepit but lethal old man to monstrous bat-winged horror to something you might pass on a London street without a second glance (but never the suave Lugosi, Langella, or Oldman portrayal) is very effective. At his worst, the blood-sucker is reminiscent of “Mr. Barlow,” the undead in the TV adaptation of Steven King’s “Salem’s Lot.”
The acting is solid under Ovredal’s direction, and the music restrained but effective.
There are some truly horrific deaths and maimings, so this might not be for the squeamish. The story includes both a child and a faithful dog – neither of which survive. Aside from those, it is a jolly romp upon the dancing waves of death.
Runtime: One hour, 58 minutes
Availability: In theaters, streaming eventually on Peacock
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