Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter

A single chapter of Bram Stoker's iconic novel inspires this seafaring vampire flick, which resembles 'Alien' but with Dracula on a ship.
Sarah Ward
Published on August 10, 2023


In the Bram Stoker vampire novel that's inspired almost all other vampire novels, Dracula is undead. In popular culture since and forever, the fictional Transylvanian bloodsucker will never die. Regardless of his fate on the page back in 1897, the most-portrayed character in horror movies ever keeps baring his fangs on-screen, rising again and again like the sun that this creature of the night can never bask in. 2023 brings two new Dracula films, which isn't overly notable, but this crop of Stoker-influenced flicks doesn't simply retell the usual 126-year-old tale. Leaning into comedy and action, Renfield sunk its teeth in by giving the vampire's long-suffering familiar some love. Now the dread-dripping Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter hones in on one chapter of the book that started it all, detailing the captain's log from the neck-munching fiend's journey to London via ship.

In print, this stint of seafaring isn't Dracula's main focus. In adaptations upon adaptations over the past century, sometimes it isn't even included — or, if it does pop up, it's often a montage or a passing mention. The watery trip glistens with horror-movie potential, however, boasting a specific setting, a captive group, and an ominous force stalking and slaying. Slasher films, haunted-house fare, Jaws, Alien: they've all fed on such scenarios. Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter has spent decades in various stages of development, cycling through a feast of various talents, but bringing this Dracula chapter to the screen was always a sound idea. While the end result doesn't star Noomi Rappace (You Won't Be Alone), Ben Kingsley (Daliland), Jude Law (Peter Pan & Wendy) or Viggo Mortensen (Thirteen Lives) as previously floated, and isn't directed by Robert Schwentke (The Captain, Allegiant), Marcus Nispel (Conan the Barbarian, Friday the 13th) or Neil Marshall (The Lair, Hellboy), a solid concept with eerie, moody and gory potential remains at its core.

Leading instead: Corey Hawkins (In the Heights) as physician Clemens, Aisling Franciosi (The Nightingale) as stowaway Anna and Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) as Captain Eliot. The former hops onto the latter's ship in Eastern Europe, where a promised job falls through due to his race, forcing a pivot onto the Demeter's crew to return to England. Clemens isn't the only new boarding, with the vessel also welcoming 50 unmarked crates from the Carpathian Mountains. Given that the film is named Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter Down Under — elsewhere, it's known as just The Last Voyage of the Demeter — there's no surprises about what's among the cargo. So, as initially told in Dracula's seventh chapter, in the epistolary format of letters, journals and clippings that Stoker's tome deployed across the entire novel, the key contents of those mysterious wooden chests soon begins offing fellow seafarers.

As it relishes gothic-horror chills and, later, gruesome blood spills, there's a full-circle air to the latest film by Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark director André Øvredal. Of course Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter feels like Alien but Dracula, or Halloween with the nape-chomping Count — all visions of slaughter at sea owe his acclaimed text's 'The Dailygraph' segment a debt, and all slasher flicks owe Stoker's book as a whole. Bragi F Schut (Escape Room) and Zak Olkewicz's (Bullet Train) screenplay isn't quaking about those similarities. It isn't afraid of unfurling a narrative with zero tension about its outcome, either, because Dracula's time in London is already that well-covered. Indeed, after commencing with the end that's so deeply established, the bulk of the movie arrives as flashbacks, as lifted from Eliot's log, of the infernal odyssey that eventuates whenever "a man, tall and thin, and ghastly pale" — aka a Nosferatu-esque Dracula (Javier Botet, His House) — awakes from coffin.

Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter's script is an invitation to its filmmaker, then: take this setup, with its familiar situation, famous monster and foregone conclusion, and make it an old-school frightfest through atmosphere, execution and investment in characters. Øvredal largely obliges. Exactly what the audience knows will happen does — regardless of how intimate you are with the source material, or past Drac outings, or not — but this isn't a mere water-treading viewing experience in the Norwegian director's hands. How creepily and compellingly this story is splashed across the screen is as crucial as the plot details. So is the film's willingness to let its antagonist terrify, plus its eagerness to flesh out its pivotal humans. Enlisting Botet, who was also a menacing presence in Mama, Crimson Peak, IT, Insidious: The Last Key and Slender Man, helps. In avoiding relegating Clemens, Anna, Eliot, his grandson Toby (Woody Norman, C'mon C'mon) and first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian, Oppenheimer) to just prey and pawns, the rest of the cast also assists.

The ins and outs of Schut and Olkewicz's script see the science-minded Clemens set sail, clash with the Demeter's crew over their faith in myth and superstition — they're also not fussed about his attire or smooth hands — then try to hunt down the creature that's leaving a red-streaked body count. The film's narrative also chronicles Anna's shock appearance mid-voyage, as well as a cat-and-mouse game as the living endeavour to stop the undead. Øvredal's committed direction, plus discerning cinematography (by Mortal's Roman Osin and The Ice Road's Tom Stern), production design (Edward Thomas, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions) and composing (Bear McCreary, Foundation), showers that doomed journey with unease. As the helmer's filmography already attests, he knows the horror genre's basics inside out. And, he's equally aware that textured performances leave a mark, whether Hawkins is conveying why believing in the rational is so important to Clemens, or Franciosi is expressing pain and perseverance, or Cunningham embodying down-with-the-ship dutifulness.

As it charts its carnage-filled cruise, Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter isn't an origin story but an in-between story. "In-between" sums up the picture overall, too. It lingers in the middle of Hammer flicks and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. It is gleefully keen on bloodshed, but also frequently refined in look and feel. Øvredal's feature is enthusiastic about staking its own claim; however, as too much does lately, it goes to great efforts to spark a follow-up — and attempt to resurrect Universal's monster movies after 2014's Dracula Untold and 2017's The Mummy failed. (Consider Renfield and Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter's swift-in-succession releases the studio giving itself two new tastes.) This trip with ol' Drac never sinks, yet it also doesn't truly soar. For the bloodsucker himself over this particular journey, that's a welcome outcome. For viewers witnessing a literary masterpiece given a different big-screen spin after its packed history, it's enough to bite into.


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