During an ungodly storm one night in 1893, a ship crashes aimlessly against the rocks of a seaside port town of Whitby, England. There are no survivors on the schooner but no bodies either. Save but one, the captain himself now dead had apparently tied himself to the helm to ensure his ship reach its destination. But what happened on board the Demeter?
Four weeks earlier, the Demeter is loading up in port of Varna, Bulgaria. The educated doctor Clemens (Corey Hawkins) joins the small crew consisting of a few hands, first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), a young cabin boy (Woody Norman) and Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham). Strange crates bearing a dragon insignia are loaded on board while the locals who brought them to the docks wish the crew a disconcerting “Good luck”.
Immediately after setting sail, the crew discover the young Anna (Aisling Franciosi) an apparent stowaway amongst the cargo, followed by appearances of a strange figure creeping about the ship at night. It isn’t long before crew-mates begin to disappear without a trace. Early scepticism turns to fear as the men realise they’re trapped with something they do not understand. Their fates seem already sealed, all that is left is to try to kill this vile creature before it’s too late for England!
Originally conceived by screenwriter Bragi F. Schut, Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter is an expansion of a particular chapter from Bram Stoker’s legendary 1897 novel, Dracula. While only consisting of a few entries, “The Captain’s Log” is a quite chilling precursor to what we would now see as a modern slasher film. However, despite much interest, the story has been trapped in development limbo for decades passing between multiple writers and directors. Now, after much delay, it finds its own captain in visionary Norwegian director, André Øvredal.
A curious task with this film is how to maintain tension in a story, the ending of which has been spoiled for over 100 years. Much is done to greatly expand upon the source material and to create an Alien-inspired claustrophobic thrill ride in the process. With similar creature features under his belt, Øvredal maintains an intensely gothic inspired tale which also isn’t afraid to do its own thing.
A script by Zak Olkewicz on the back of his success with ‘Bullet Train’ explores the characters of the Demeter’s crew effectively. Clemens attempts to understand a world which makes little sense as it is (even before you throw vampires into the mix). One of the film’s most ambitious additions is the character of Anna played well by Franciosi who looks like she jumped aboard straight off the set of 2018’s ‘The Nightingale’.
But it is Dastmalchian who I’m most impressed by as The Demeter’s first mate and captain-to-be, Wojchek. Dastmalchian is a familiar face immediately recogniseable through his extensive work. So, I’m thrilled to see him in a much more substantial role, giving the actor more room to breathe rather than the bits he’s more known for.
Costume design by Carlo Poggioli and production design by Edward Thomas are stand outs as well. The leaky hulking Demeter almost becoming a character in the film all on its own for the time we spend with it.
On the weaker side, I feel a little let down by this film’s portrayal of the one and only Count Dracula. Seeming to take more inspiration from Guillermo del Toro than Bram Stoker, the titular villain is suitably vicious and terrifying. However, much more grotesque than the charismatic fiend described in the novel, the events of this story are supposed to be fitting within which is where the film lags for me.
I was impressed early on by how faithful the film was in expanding such a small part of a larger story. Even expanding it in such a way as to bring in interesting new ideas to the narrative. But as the film goes on and the ‘Hollywoodisms’ come flying, this is cheapened somewhat. At its worst, outright contradicting “The Captain’s Log” rather than staying true to it.
Creepy, thrilling, violent and full of character, Dracula: Voyage of the Demeter makes for an exciting horror film. It may fall short of the classic it had the potential to be and this creature design of Dracula is definitely more generic than I had hoped. However, Øvredal’s vision remains strong and the movie features a particular edge to it which sets it apart from other sanitised Dracula-tales.