It’s rare, but sometimes a horror film comes down the pike that tells its tale with such confidence and craftmanship, it almost feels like a miracle. IT FOLLOWS was one in 2014. So was THE BABADOOK that same year. And now there is THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, easily one of the better horror films of the last few years, cleverly told and beautifully crafted, with taste and sensitivity unseen in most modern horror. Is it scary? Hell, yes. It builds an ever-increasing sense of dread with each new scene, but even more impressive is how shrewd it is, filling the screen with smart characters, sly twists, and a sense of morality. It never looks cheap or traffics in cheap scares, and it could very well turn out to be the sleeper of the summer.
The film’s greatness starts with the knowing script by Bragi F. Schut Jr and Zak Olkewicz, adapted from “The Captain’s Log,” a chapter from the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. This adaptation wholly respects its source material and honors the lore of vampirism in ways that most modern tales would cheat left and right. Crates, containing unknown cargo, are being transported from Transylvania to London in the late 1800s. One of them is mishandled upon loading onto the ship and dirt starts to pour out of a splinter in the wood. That’s Dracula’s home turf, of course, his ‘homeland’ that he must travel with and sleep on, according to Stoker’s prose.
The beast inside the box will soon be escaping too. The unsuspecting crew he’ll set his sites on includes the stoic Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham), his no-nonsense second-in-command Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), a god-fearing cook (Jon Jon Briones), and the newly hired doctor named Clemens (Corey Hawkins). The fact that the lead character of Hawkins is a black man gives the story a sense of modernity, but the film also grounds him in the Victorian Era as the bigoted Cockney crew doesn’t exactly take to the newcomer. Thankfully, Eliot likes him, and so does his grandson Toby (Woody Norman).
Clemens further alienates himself from the crew when he discovers an unconscious woman below deck. The sailors think she’s a stowaway, an interloper who should be tossed into the sea, but the wise doctor stands up for her. Anna (Aisling Franciosi) isn’t a criminal; she’s a sickly, malnourished victim of Dracula’s, one he’s crated up as his makeshift bride. Clemens helps her recover with blood transfusions from his own veins. Soon, Drac will be nourishing himself to full health too by feeding on the livestock aboard at night.
Amongst the animal victims is Toby’s beloved dog as well. Such a sacrifice of a family pet is usually the first sign of laziness in a horror film as it murders an all-too-easy target, but this kill makes sense. The vampire doesn’t have enough strength yet to attack humans yet. It’s a wise move in the script, and the film’s director Andre Ovredal wisely keeps such gore to a minimum.
Both Hawkins and Franciosi are terrific throughout but the script wisely avoids turning their relationship into a love story. That allows the full ensemble to shine more as they start getting targeted by Dracula. It makes for sublime tension on just who will be next. At times, the film reminded me of John Carpenter’s remake of THE THING and I intend that as the highest of compliments.
Thus, as the crew fights for their lives, they display courage which keeps us rooting for them. The sailors search the ship for the fiend and set up traps to try and catch him. The film becomes a taut game of cat-and-mouse in the second act and such machinations also allow for the exquisite production design to shine. It is one impressively detailed set with kudos going to head designer Edward Thomas. The costumes, makeup, score, and special effects are all top-drawer too with only a few shots easily tagged as CGI.
THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER is even clever in its surprise ending, setting up a worthy sequel. After the superb efforts of this film, I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences start chomping at the bit to see it become a franchise. This is a film made with style, discretion, and heart, and it will surely move you as much as it delivers the thrills and chills.