Hapless sailors become a blood-sucking buffet in a lifeless and predictable vampire horror flick. The Last Voyage of the Demeter, based on “The Captain’s Log” chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, had the base elements to be terrifying. Getting stuck on a doomed ship at sea with a ravenous beast is a promising premise. There’s nowhere to run or hide. Fight for your life or die horribly. What we get is a painfully slow slog through tired genre tropes. The characters don’t have an ounce of self-preservation or rationality. They’re akin to flailing teens running blindly in the dark with a killer ambling behind them.
On August 6, 1897, a derelict ship crashes into the English coastline during a fierce storm. Rescuers find no sign of the crew, but recover the captain’s log in the wreckage. He documents their ghastly demise at the hands of an evil and relentless creature. The film then flashes back to four weeks earlier at a port in Bulgaria. The Demeter comes ashore to pick up cargo and hire new crew for a trip to London. Captain Elliot (Liam Cunningham) tells his grandson, Toby (Woody Norman), to be careful playing on the docks as Wojchek (David Dastmalchian), his first mate, takes care of business.
Meanwhile, in a nearby bar, Clemons (Corey Hawkins), a Black doctor looking for work, hears the Demeter is looking for able-bodied seamen. He rushes to the dock but is overlooked by Wojcheck. Clemons watches as caravan of Romanian Gypsies unload long wooden crates emblazoned with a dragon symbol. They work feverishly to avoid staying after dark. Clemons springs into action when a crate nearly crushes Toby. Captain Elliot rewards him with a job and a full share of the cargo’s profits.
The Demeter sets sail with an unnerved Wojchek. The Gypsies’ parting words linger in his troubled mind. Clemons fits in at first with the rough and seasoned crew. The winds look favorable. They should arrive in London way ahead of schedule. This means additional money for each man. Clemons laughs as they describe the drinking and cavorting at brothels to come.
Below the deck, something sinister stirs. Huck, Toby’s dog, barks furiously at an unseen menace. Toby shrieks when he discovers Huck’s eviscerated body later that night. All the animals in the hold suffered the same grisly fate. Captain Elliot wonders what could have done this. Clemons notices the carcasses have strange bite marks on the necks.
Let’s start on a positive note with what actually works for the film. The Last Voyage of the Demeter has a passable production design and visual effects. Norwegian director André Øvredal (Trollhunter, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) does a decent job of establishing the setting. The old wooden ship looks sufficiently rundown and grimy. It bucks and heaves on a CGI ocean that progressively gets more tumultuous. The practical make-up effects, smashed skulls, torn throats, and spewing arteries fill the carnage quotient. That said, the trick of using darkness to hide computerized details becomes more evident during the long night scenes. You may have to strain a few times to see what’s happening.
The narrative goes dramatically south once the blood starts gushing. Captain Elliot orders the ship to be searched. They find a strange stowaway in one of the crates (Aisling Franciosi) but inexplicably don’t open the other boxes. The dog and animals were basically chewed to bits, a hurt woman is hidden in the cargo, but they stop looking for clues? Insert WTF here. This lack of foresight becomes more idiotic and unbelievable once the crew members start dying. Hmm…could the hidden killer possibly be in the place you didn’t search? Why would the captain keep the crew separated if they’re picked off one by one? They don’t take a defensive position until the third act. This makes no sense whatsoever.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter fumbles racism and sexism in poorly handled subplots. Clemons invokes suspicion for being the smart Black guy, even though he’s the only person medically qualified to treat the wounded and investigate the murders. The crew realizes they’re doomed once a woman is on board. Ignorant superstition takes hold in the panic. I have no issue with the film addressing social issues of the time, but the script handles thorny topics in a hackneyed way. It needed to be much smarter and thoughtful.
There are no surprises or moments of realistic fright. Every death is broadcast with a megaphone. I can buy inane characterizations and a trite plot if scared witless. This is unfortunately not the case. The utter lack of terror is a fatal and unforgivable flaw. The Last Voyage of the Demeter suffers from boredom.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is a production of DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment. It will be released theatrically on August 11th from Universal Pictures.