.Undead Again

Thrilling new horror pic dives deeply into the Dracula mystique

The Last Voyage of the Demeter doesn’t look, sound or feel like most of today’s horror movies. As conceived by director André Øverdahl and writers and technicians working in the U.S., Malta, Germany and other territories, this latest visit to the realm of the film world’s most popular demon, Dracula, has a dreamy haze of nostalgia hanging over it. 

The writing, acting and production values are of an unexpected high quality reminiscent of the work of such old-school fright factories as Universal Studios in the 1930s-‘40s and Hammer Films of the 1960s. The scene settings are richly detailed. The speaking parts are histrionic but not foolishly so. Each of the story elements and visuals register as unmistakably gothic, in keeping with the pedigree established by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel and the best of its cinematic offspring.

The mood of corruption and impending doom is unshakable, from the rotting earth inside Dracula’s coffins and the terrified rats running for their lives in the ship’s hold, to the camera work that uses darkness as a range of foggy colors through which the horror is glimpsed fleetingly, as in a nightmare. 

Øverdahl and screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz had the brave idea to fashion their little corner of the Dracula legend on one of the slimmest, but most atmospheric, episodes in Stoker’s novel, “Log of the Demeter,” an account of what happened to the crew of a sailing ship hauling boxes of soil (Dracula’s resting place) from the Black Sea port of Varna, Bulgaria to England. None of the human beings survived the journey.

In Last Voyage, memorably pictured by cinematographers Roman Osin and Tom Stern, production designer Edward Thomas and visual effects supervisor Brad Parker, the ship’s small crew undergoes a familiar by-the-numbers attrition at the hands of the repulsively shadowy Count Dracula (Spanish actor Javier Botet). They drop off one by one.

The filmmakers opt for a few 21st-century casting touches – the addition of a Black Englishman named Clemens (Corey Hawkins), an incautious cabin boy (Woody Norman) and a tormented Rom stowaway (Aisling Franciosi). But the rest of the crew would fit nicely into any Jack London rugged adventure: Liam Cunningham as the captain, Filipino actor Jon Jon Briones as the prophetic cook, and Stefan Kapicic and David Dastmalchian (from Oppenheimer) as panicky sailors.

Last Voyage goes places neither Stoker’s original tale nor subsequent film treatments would probably care to, but with a keen balance between gruesome shock cuts and the sort of psychologizing that comes from a crew of tough but superstitious seamen having an adult discussion about the mysterious evil presence among them. For the record, the all-time most terrifying screen depiction of the insatiable vampire on board the death ship belongs to the enigmatic Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), rising from his box like a slow-motion vision of repulsiveness, in complete silence. However, the 2023 version never stoops to cartoonish creature-feature effects. Its “realistic” gothicism arises from the collision of incomprehensible supernatural ugliness with ordinary working-class on-the-job jitters. 

No fewer than eight writers, including the credited Schut and Olkewicz, attempted to tell the story of the Demeter as the property made its circuitous way through a series of failed studio deals over more than 30 years. According to Wikpedia, actors Noomi Rapace, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley and Viggo Mortensen were considered for various roles. The cast of Last Voyage stands up to previous Dracula opponents for down-to-earth grit if nothing else – no Dwight Frye or Roland Topor here. 

And for Hollywood nostalgic verisimilitude it’s somehow gratifying to note that Universal Pictures is theatrically distributing The Last Voyage of the Demeter in the U.S. The ghosts of Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi and “Uncle Carl” Laemmle must surely be smiling down, and maybe wondering why the new Dracula has so many teeth, like a bloody barracuda, when a couple of sharp canines would do the job.

In theaters

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition