By their very nature, prequels are challenging. Not only are they tasked with justifying themselves for existing in the first place, but they also must operate within predetermined paradigms set by their future predecessors. Prequels have to constantly connect the dots as well as tell their own story, and this becomes even more difficult when that outcome results in the death or deaths of the main characters. Thus is the difficultly with Universal Pictures‘ “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” an extended narrative from the captains log recorded in the first few pages of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
There’s no spoiler here- the crew doesn’t make it. So it seems the film telling the story of their demise is as doomed as the short mentions of their characters in the original text, forcing it into an even greater uphill battle than most. The film’s biggest folly isn’t so much that we’re watching a crew face off against Dracula, it’s more knowing they lose the battle. It’s that the film really isn’t sure what kind of movie it wants to be, which in turn makes it incredibly difficult to fully engage and justify its existence in the the first place. “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” offers some strong performances, a haunting score and stellar production design, but struggles so much narratively and thematically that it leaves you unsatisfied.
Directed by André Øvredal (“Scary Stories to tell in the Dark,” “Trollhunter,”) from a screenplay by Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is based on the 1897 novel “Dracula” by Stoker. The film follows a crew who are charged with transporting private cargo from Bulgaria to London, and will get paid a very large sum if they’re able to make it to shore early. After a few days at sea, the crew realizes that something terrible is happening. All of the livestock are killed in the night, and in a storm one of the crates opens to reveal a woman, alive, buried in the dirt. Of course, crewmen begin to go missing in the night, too, and it becomes clear that they are not alone; evil is on board. It is a fight for survival as the remaining crew members try to figure out what has been unleashed and how to not be the next victim.
There are a few things that “Demeter” gets right. As previously stated, the production design and haunting score create a sense of dreadful tension amid the film’s over the top brutality. There’s some execution problems here which we’ll discuss later, but for now these things really sell the claustrophobic atmosphere of being trapped at sea with something lurking in the dark. It *IS* brutal, it may even be downright cruel and mean spirited and sports some gnarly kills at hands of Dracula (Javier Botet). This is one of the few places where the film adds to the immortal creature lore.
Too often the story focuses on the seduction and emotional turmoil of Dracula (and vampires at large for that matter, always regretting or struggling with their nature). “Demeter” opts to restore the sheer carnivorous appetite of a creature that feeds on flesh and blood. There’s no glitter, no veggie vamp, no ladies man wooing, no wise cracking funny vamp. We see him as monster through and through, and this actually adds a new welcomed layer to Dracula himself.
Additionally, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is elevated by strong performances from its cast, particularly from David Dastmalchian (“Dune“) as the ship’s first mate Wojchek, and Aisling Franciosi as Anna (the woman recovered from the dirt coffin). Dastmalchian is always committed to his roles, but it’s nice to seem him be more of a strong man this time around as oppose to his often creepy, awkward, reclusive persona. I’m a fan of most of his work so I don’t mean that as a slight, just that he gets to flex some range here and it works.
Franciosi is a little hampered down by some clumsy script missteps, but really makes the most of what she’s given and makes herself a compelling protagonist. I’m still very on the fence about Corey Hawkins, who plays Clemens, a doctor welcomed aboard at the last minute. He does fine here, but something about him just doesn’t scream leading man, and I don’t know that I was sold in fully rooting for his survival. “Demeter” has plenty of other cast members, but most of them are there for bloodletting and not necessarily character development. Still, everyone feels committed and works hards to elevate the material.
There are also a few things that don’t work in “Demeter,” many of them surrounding the script and execution of the story. What really sends this ship into the abyss is the undercutting of its own mystery and atmosphere. Øvredal is a more than capable director, but can’t seem to put the pieces together right. The creature is revealed far too early, and never really lets us settle into the haunting atmosphere everything else is working to create. It is so focused on getting to the brutality and showing us what is causing the carnage that it forgets that we need to 1. know the characters before we start ripping them to shreds and 2. be as in the dark as our surrogates to be truly effective. “Jaws” works because we never actually see the shark until the end. The dread of the unknown ocean is the real monster, the real fear inducing tactic that is flawless in its effectiveness.
This film misses this mark entirely, and every time things get tense it takes a machete to it by constantly showing us Dracula in his creature form. There’s no dread in the darkness if we’re constantly shining light on it, and “Demeter” makes this mistake time and time again.
Because the script is more concerned with how to kill its characters than give us characters to care about, “Demeter” feels lost at sea with its themes. It becomes hard to emotionally invest in anyone because the narrative doesn’t really give us any reason to do so. I’m not advocating for more runtime (lord knows this story doesn’t need MORE expanded lore), but rather more time spent learning and knowing the people on the ship. That way when the blood starts flowing and cruelty begins, we don’t want anything bad to happen to happen to any of them and cringe and look away and lean forward when they eventually succumb to the powers of Dracula. This also highlights the conflicting motivations of the crew.
Nothing is really made all too clear as to why any of them are doing anything and what their relationships are like, which again makes it difficult to invest in any of them. This in turns holds the film back from expanding on the Dracula lore. It negates its own justification for a need to tell this story, and leaves you feeling like it didn’t really need to be told at all.
And that’s the real problem. “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” feels lost at sea, unable to tell its own story with confident execution and therefore failing as a justified prequel. It tells us nothing we don’t already know aside from a few subplots that never feel fully fleshed out, and its predetermined conclusion is no more robust or rich than the few pages in the original text. Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It is well-made visually, mean-spirited and brutal, and well performed. These elements don’t quite make up for its execution missteps, but it does save it from completely crashing upon the rocks on the shores of London.
Also, HUGE missed opportunity at the end to franchise this thing and make a crucial connection that would’ve given “Demeter” an extra star if they just went there. Seriously, the set up is perfect and they do nothing with it. Shame.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.