The Last Voyage of the Demeter is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

The strange events aboard the cargo vessel Demeter—en route from the southern shores of Bulgaria to the eastern coast of England—occupy about five pages in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. Those pages consist of a short but increasingly panicked section of the captain's log—recovered after the Demeter drifts into Whitby without a soul alive on-board—and they are absolutely terrifying. These same events are depicted in Nosferatu (1922)—F.W. Murnau's unauthorized silent adaptation of Stoker's novel—where they occupy about six minutes of screen-time that, a century later, remain among the scariest and most iconic in the history of cinema.

In contrast, The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023)—directed by André Øvredal (Troll Hunter) from a screenplay by Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room) and Zac Olkewcz (Bullet Train)—clocks in just shy of two hours, freely extrapolating from Stoker's sparse details and efficiently distilled horror to basically deliver Alien on a boat.

On the one hand, I'd argue this constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the source material so memorable. In Dracula, the deaths on the ship are mysterious, and the captain isn't even certain there's something evil on board until he himself is the last man standing. In reading that section, the terror lives entirely in our own imaginations: We know what the captain does not (that the Demeter is carrying a vampire), and in our mind's eye we fill in all the gory details around the log's sparse and bewildered reporting. (Murnau understood this perfectly: In Nosferatu we glimpse the vampire's spectral presence on the ship—as the crew reports seeing him in the novel—but all the actual attacks and deaths happen offscreen.)

On the other (more charitable) hand, "Alien-on-a-boat" is far from the worst idea anyone ever had for a horror movie. In fact, The Last Voyage of the Demeter makes us realize very quickly that such a 19th-century sailing vessel—cut off from civilization, storm-tossed in fog and wind and waves, with creaking timbers, an unruly crew, and claustrophobic, rat-infested holds—is the perfect setting for classic gothic horror. This is what The Last Voyage of the Demeter aspires to be—a grand, Hammer-style horror-fest with a genuinely wicked edge—and it very nearly succeeds. Alas, Øvredal ultimately proves better at setting-up scares than at paying them off, and so Voyage, frustratingly, never quite becomes the great movie it might have been. It still, however, manages to be a surprisingly good one. 

Corey Hawkins is Clemens, a Cambridge-educated physician who has the misfortune to seek passage back to England by joining the crew of the Demeter, under the command of kindly Captain Eliot (Game of ThronesLiam Cunningham) and first mate Mr. Wojchek (the suddenly ubiquitous, and always welcome, David Dastmalchian). The crew have been promised generous bonuses if they can deliver their cargo to Whitby ahead of schedule, but Clemens isn't motivated by money: A man of science, he's driven solely by a desire to understand the world, including the laws of nature and the purpose of evil. "The world cares little for sense," the captain warns him, and indeed Clemens' faith in logic will be sorely tested on this journey, even as his inquisitive nature makes him a natural detective when things inevitably begin to go very, very wrong aboard the Demeter.

As with Dracula, we already know to be suspicious of those big wooden crates full of earth in the ship's cargo hold. But Voyage takes its admirable time in acclimating us to this world and its inhabitants before the bodies start dropping. There is a wonderfully old-fashioned approach to the storytelling in the film's first half, which some modern viewers may find taxing, but which I personally found reassuring and refreshing after so much noisy, carelessly-chaotic multiplex fare this summer. None of the characters are deeply drawn, but effective effort is made to make us care about a few of them, and to at least allow us to tell the others apart. (If that level of basic storytelling competence seems like a low-bar for praise, you haven't seen as many movies I have recently.)

And obviously the space will be all important in the suspense story to come, and so Øvredal takes the time to show us the Demeter, and to teach us its peculiarities and rules. (The Captain's grandson Toby [Woody Norman, recently of Cobweb] literally gives Clemens, and us, a tour of the ship, teaching us that knocking on the hull means danger, allowing us already to worry about the fate of the ship's dog and livestock, and inviting us to imagine all the things that could be lurking in those dark damp passages below decks.) The production design is good, and the sound design—all wind and waves and ominously groaning wood—is excellent: Being on board the Demeter is a fully immersive experience, in ways that get us halfway to where we need to be for horror.

Anna (Aisling Franciosi) and Clemens (Corey Hawkins) investigate the ship's dark cargo hold in THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER

It is with the introduction of Anna (Aisling Franciosi, The Nightingale) that The Last Voyage of the Demeter's course starts to seriously depart from the one charted by Stoker, in ways that are understandable but which don't always pay off. A seriously anemic Romani girl discovered unconscious in the cargo hold, the crew mistake her for a stowaway, but we know—even before we see the bite marks—that she was actually brought along as a snack. Franciosi is a marvelous actor and a mesmerizing screen presence—I've been a fan since her work on the Gillian Anderson series The Fall—and she's good here. But the character of Anna speaks to that fundamental misunderstanding of the source material that slightly undermines the film throughout. Simply put, Anna knows—and tells—too much, putting a name to the sinister presence aboard the Demeter, and turning Voyage in the direction of a standard monster-hunt movie, rather than the suspenseful confrontation with the unknown and unknowable it might have been.

The same sorts of problems plague the creature itself (played—when it's not entirely computer-generated—by Javier Botet). For a respectable amount of the film's running time, it is only glimpsed, a pale inhuman figure lurking and scurrying in the shadows, and it is scary. As the film progresses, however, we see its CGI form more clearly—its attacks becoming more open and graphic—and it loses a bit of its mystery, menace, and dignity. There are genuinely frightening sequences in the film's middle, made scarier by a healthy amount of gore and a startling (but admirable) narrative cruelty. (No spoilers, but the very essence of the Demeter's story should make it clear that no one is necessarily safe from a violent end.) By the third act, however, Voyage has become much more of an action movie than it ever should have been, and much of the wonderfully atmospheric mood has been sacrificed on the altars of screenwriting convention and mainstream-audience catering. 

I am aware that The Last Voyage of the Demeter has received some very mixed reviews—some of them downright nasty—and I suspect that frustration accounts for much of the critical bile. Voyage is good enough that it becomes impossible to ignore the great movie it could have been, if the filmmakers had only adhered closer to the existential dread of the premise and worried less about standard Hollywood beats. (Øvredal does so many things right that it seems almost churlish to imagine other directors at Voyage's helm, but I found myself fantasizing about a black-and-white expansion of Stoker's premise written and directed by—say—Robert Eggers. That hypothetical movie gives me goosebumps just to think about.)   

That being said, after recent weekends that have offered me wretched studio fare like Haunted Mansion and Meg 2: The Trench to watch, I find myself in a very glass-half-full sort of mood. I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Voyage of the Demeter, and I'm inclined to celebrate it for what it is: a solid, impressively atmospheric, surprisingly ruthless monster movie. It may not be the A-list arthouse horror we might have wished for, but it's a remarkably strong B-movie of the kind they don't make often enough anymore.

At one point, Captain Eliot laments how modernization—the arrival of the steam engine—is making sailing vessels like the Demeter a thing of the past. "There's no joy left in ships," he says sadly. It's a line that resonates with the film industry, and which speaks to the old-fashioned approach to horror that makes The Last Voyage of the Demeter stand out from its contemporaries. At its best—for an impressive amount of its running time—this is a film that appreciates the romance of a slightly slower journey, takes pleasure in the rich, tactile sensations of a lovingly-constructed scare, and provides the sheer joy of traveling with a crew that remembers how things used to be done.

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  1. Having not seen it yet, I may be wrong, but for it to be "Alien" on a boat, there needs to be at least one survivor (in some form) who would not have been mentioned in the Stoker novel. This, and another review that mentions a final scene which sets up the story for a possible franchise, makes it easy to guess who that would be.

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