The most seductive thing, or the only seductive thing, about the new Dracula riff The Last Voyage of the Demeter is its rather inspired B-movie concept — one that’s apparently been in development hell, with scores of personnel changes, for over 20 years. We all know the plot beats of Dracula well enough, including the elliptical passage of the title schooner from Bulgaria to the south of England, where it shows up with a crew of corpses and crates of Carpathian sand. It’s only a five-page chunk of Chapter 7, in which the local Whitby newspaper quotes the captain’s log, and what happened on the voyage is something filmmakers have usually skipped over as well — only Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) paused to make a stark memorable meal of the situation.
In fact, focusing on the unnamed marginal characters in the famous larger story has a postmodern pedigree — the Demeter’s tribulations could be a monster-culture Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Decades ago, screenwriter Bragi Schut noticed how much the scenario echoed the closed-maze set-up of Alien, which is not quite a stroke of brilliance but still an angle the previous 8,000 takes on the story hadn’t waded into. Alas, now the suits at DreamWorks have finally gotten around to making the thing, brimming with budget and fuming with over-emphasis, when perhaps the project should’ve been a scrappy indie, or a proud programmer like Hammer Studios used to make. (Of the half-dozen other writers involved, only Zak Olkewicz got co-credit.) Of course, with all those cooks and all that pot-stirring, the Demeter captain’s terse recounting of his crew’s mysterious demise has been distended into silliness: The victim’s list of anonymous sailors are joined here by a Black doctor (Corey Hawkins); a Bible-thumping Asian cook (Jon Jon Briones); a cute kid (Woody Norman); an alluring yet tough village girl (Aisling Franciosi), who comes tumbling out of one of Dracula’s crates of soil; and a dog. When the dog goes, the kid cries. That’s where you are.
The production is lavish in period details about the ship itself, which seems too roomy by half but feels genuine enough to beguile tall-ship buffs. Otherwise it’s an overblown, jumpy spook show, with the snarling vampire (Javier Botet) a kind of naked Nosferatu-Gollum hybrid, leaping out of the shadows every now and then while the crew members (Liam Cunningham, Chris Walley, Stefan Kapicic, David Dastmalchian, for once in a blessedly non-villain role, etc.) bicker endlessly about what to do. Very little is left to chance; entire scenes and visual strokes, with a barnacle or two added, are lifted from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and each of the first three Alien films. Not a single line of dialogue is allowed to wriggle loose from cliché.
The hey-great-idea feeling you might’ve entertained at the beginning gets worn down quickly and thoroughly, and it’s hard not to come away with the sense that all the previous Draculas got it right by having most of the Demeter’s ordeal happen entirely off-screen. In Murnau’s film, Max Schreck’s unforgettable vampire levitates out of his coffin and stalks around, the captain lashes himself to the helm, and a title card reads, “The death ship has a new captain.” Patience untested. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.