Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” unleashed a never-ending wave of vampire stories, including this year’s campy “Renfield.”
it’s getting harder to stand out in that crowded field, a feat “The Last Voyage of Demeter” does in an ingenious way. The film does a deep dive into Stoker’s text, focusing on a chilling section of the 1897 novel instead of the bigger, oft-copied picture.
The results aren’t perfect, but they benefit from a fresh perspective, terrific production design and a compelling lead.
And this vampire is as nasty as any we’ve seen before.
Dr. Clemens (Corey Hawkins, excellent) can’t find work in his chosen profession. He’s an educated black man, and his skin color may not be helping his employment prospects. He agrees to join the Demeter on a voyage to London, serving as both another able-bodied soul and doctor on call.
The cargo? Wooden crates of mysterious origin, some emblazoned with a dragon-like logo. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
Some do, of course, in the film’s chilling and bleakly comic opening. The rest want the extra money they’ll make if they arrive at their destination on time.
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The crates contain Dracula, of course, and it isn’t long before the undead ghoul is snacking on the boat’s crew members. It’s “Alien” on a ship, a template as sturdy as the novel which inspired “Demeter.”
And it works.
Blame the attention to detail throughout the story, from the grimy costumes to behavior that doesn’t smack of 21st century mores. This is a live-in tale that quickly switches to full-on horror, complete with visceral jump scares.
The Count is a beast, all right, and its practical effects make it a palpable threat. The camera often zooms in on the victims, and the fright in their eyes magnifies the shock value.
The screenplay takes an obvious swipe at religion but otherwise keeps the narrative humming.
What’s missing? The singular souls who made “Alien” so special. Hawkins is solid as the heroic lead, but some supporting players lack texture. The boat’s stowaway surprise (Aisling Franciosi) packs potential, but she’s seen as simply scrappy.
Character actor extraordinaire Liam Cunningham isn’t given much to do but he still makes an impact.
The story has its share of genre holes, but “Demeter” is so engaging you’ll only notice them on the drive home from the theater.
Director André Øvredal of “Troll Hunter” fame makes the most of the film’s limited setting. The opening is shot more lavishly, with camera swoops capturing the vibe of a late 1800s dock and the players who keep the boats running.
Later, Øvredal zooms in on the ship’s interior, noting its darkened passageways and well-worn accouterments. Few horror films look as lush, and as menacing, as “Demeter.” The score is equally gothic, occasionally overwrought but matched by the film’s intensity.
The film ends on a note all but begging for a sequel. That’s often a sign of desperation, but watching the final moments of “Demeter” makes one long for a franchise extension, with or without that overt cue.
HiT or Miss: “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is a late-summer surprise, a handsomely assembled shocker that’s both raw and engaging.