The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023) Directed by André Øvredal
My hyperbolic positive reaction to André Øvredal’s new horror film, even to my surprise, I suspect has a lot to do with its literary motifs, which are based on my favorite chapter of Bram Stoker’s landmark opus about the best-known bloodsucker of all time. “The Captain’s Log” transcends the dark folklore of the other chapters that comprise the novel with an understated apocalyptic solemnity that the other more sensationalist sections of the book do not contain. My high regard for this particular narrative segment grows vigorously because of the unflagging philosophical substance that Stoker’s pen unleashes with deep, intimate nihilistic anger on the inauspicious voyage of the ship Demeter. Watching the epistolary narrative of this chapter in feature film format was a pleasure for me; even keeping in mind its inaccuracies and trivialities, the simple fact of seeing materialized Bram Stoker’s words that ominously chronicle the catastrophe of the Demeter ship was enough to enlist me in its doomed crew and accompany them into the abyss.
Much of this adaptation takes generic liberties that leverage the tactical machinations of other horror classics – the screenplay written by Bragi Schut Jr. is conceived with the mythology of Bram Stoker’s novel and is structurally anchored by the chapter of “The Captain’s Log”, yet the methods applied are those of genre cinema. Having said that, the film has more heavy-handed facets than ingenious ones, but fortunately it always operates in the same literary field, conducted by the hopeless chronicle of the captain of the fatalistic Demeter.
The fateful maritime voyage of this merchant ship begins on July 6, 1897 from the Black Sea at Varna to England. In the crew, Clemens (Corey Hawkins) an educated black man, doctor by profession and expert in astronomy is accepted as part of this odyssey after being hired by the ship’s captain (Liam Cunningham) for having saved his grandson (Woody Norman). During the long voyage, bad omens permeate the mood of the crew, spreading an atmosphere of prejudice and superstition among them. These prophetic scenarios escalate even more when a mysterious girl (Aisling Franciosi) is rescued from one of the enormous boxes with dirt that the Demeter transports in its cargo. Unceremoniously, the subtle art of the atmosphere (its strongest attribute and metaphysical instrument) of The Last Voyage of the Demeter declines as the style becomes explicit and the threats indiscreet. Although Dracula’s monstrosity in theriomorphic and inhuman shape manages to be astoundingly violent and malevolent, his over-the-top on-camera anatomical reveal is more daft than scary. Dracula’s conspicuous appearances can evidently be a detriment to the atmospheric coldness and stealthy terror, but I must admit that André Øvredal’s claustrophobic mise-en-scène made me forget those flawed bits.
This adaptation proposes a reinterpretative twist on “The Captain’s Log”, highlighting many of the questions that plague the captain as he recounts the ill-fated calamity in which his ship finds itself. Hypothetically, the issues are existentialist to the point of interrogating the meaning of life when it is devoured by evil itself. In subjective terms, this chapter of Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel is a battle of theological puzzles for many reasons. First, fear of the unknown is one of mankind’s natural fears; like our vast ignorance regarding death, the vile and insidious figure of evil embodied by Dracula concentrates our deepest fears in the face of the omnipotence of the cosmos or unexplainable phenomena. In the film, the religious debate is much more prominent and much more pedestrian, but its impact and spiritual force is just as visceral and moving.
The debate between science and religion is an intractable conflict that has yielded nothing but infructuous results in the quest for utopian absolutist answers. Clemence, the doctor of the Demeter’s crew is the rational man in the midst of seafaring superstitions and Christian fears – the narrative is convinced that the ignorant man’s pact with superstitions will be his doom, yet it is also subtly convinced that the wise man’s pact with secularism will be fatal – this zigzagging and ridiculously theological narrative form is likely to be too ambitious for the smallness of a format subjected to the clichés of the genre. Nevertheless, the darkness of Dracula – however trifling it may be – proves here to be more than a lurking shadow in search of blood, it is the myth that feeds on our deepest fears.