Review: Thin characterization stakes new Dracula film, ‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’

Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi in The Last Voyage of the Demeter (Dreamworks Pictures)

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” the latest take on Dracula, boasts great production values, a stylish flair for such a grim tale, and a fairly creepy and animalistic vampire who is more demon from Hell than creature of the night.

Unfortunately such flourishes mean very little when supporting a wooden script, chock full of paper-thin characters and situations. Had the two-hour film been more tightly wound — maybe a brisk hour and 10 or 20 minutes — the movie might have generated some steam.

However the viewer feels every minute of the movie’s hour- and 58-minute weight as it slogs along with the elevator-pitch idea of inserting a bestial Dracula into the plot of 1979’s “Alien,” but setting the film on the high seas of the 19th century.

Actually that pitch sounds a lot better than “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” plays.

Directed by Andre Overdal from a screenplay by Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, the movie is based on the seventh chapter of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula,” entitled “The Captain’s Log.”

The chapter from the epistolary novel tells the tale of how some demon beast decimates the crew of the cargo ship “Demeter,” as it travels from Romania to England. Basically Count Dracula made many meals out of the ship’s crew when he changed addresses from his Transylvanian castle to Carfax, his domicile in southern England. The movie supposedly fills in the gaps that that chapter left out.

Now as a fan of the character and the novel, all of that sounded interesting to me, but with only the barest amount of characterization to support the vampire’s victims, the film becomes of a labor to watch as you wait on the next jump scare and gory attack. The mayhem when the vampire pounces is very effective. Too bad the rest of the film isn’t.

What the director and the writers forgot is that the audience has to have some reason to care about or hate the victims in a horror movie for their brutal treatment to evoke any emotion. Unfortunately the film fails grandly here, neutering a decent idea and the wonderful production efforts of the crew. The movie is boring despite looking fantastic.

Dracula appears to be caught in transition between its bat and human-like form. If you are familiar with the Man-Bat character from Batman comics and cartoons, you get the image. The effects and make-up on Dracula are really well done, but it is more like the Xenomorphs in “Alien” or the shark in “Jaws.” It’s a force of nature rather than a true character.

While so many movies featuring Dracula from 1970s to the 2000s erred by re-making the character into a romance-novel heart throb, this film turns the dial all the way around and wipes all the human veneer away, leaving just fangs, claws, and bat wings. While that’s cool, so much of what fans love about the character is lost.

If you like vampires and can abide with an achingly slow pace between kills, you might finds some fun with this movie. The production values are wonderful. However, “The Voyage of the Demeter” might work better in a home viewing, where you can easily head to the kitchen or the bathroom between the dashes of excitement.

(R) 1 hr. 58 min.
Grade: C-

New in Local Theaters – Aug. 11, 2023

  • The Last Voyage of the Demeter (R) 1 hr. 58 min. (trailer)
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne)
  • Jules (PG-13) 1 hr. 30 min. (trailer)
    (Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)

Classic Corner – Harper

Paul Newman is unquestionably one of the top movie stars of his era and really any era.

He made more than a few great films from the 1950s into the 21st century. From his early work in films like “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Cat on Hot Tin Roof,” “The Long Hot Summer,” and “The Hustler,” Newman had a charisma that men admired and a sex appeal that women could not deny.

Newman was equally adept playing an angsty loner with a chip on his shoulder, or the perfect comedic partner in crime.

He had a twinkle in his eye, and wry smile that made films like “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” even more appealing. It has to be difficult to stand out when playing a scene with Robert Redford, but that’s exactly what Newman did in those two films and practically every other movie he’s made.

Another of those films is “Harper” from 1966. The movie’s opening in which Newman dunks his head into a sink of ice water perfectly encapsulates the film’s numbness, and the scene remains iconic to this day.

“Harper” is a convoluted tale featuring Newman as Los Angeles private investigator Lew Harper, who is hired by Susan (Lauren Bacall) to find her missing millionaire husband, whom she believes is out philandering. But Susan wants Harper to check up on her husband on the off chance he’s been a victim of kidnapping or murder.

The film, directed by Jack Smight, is loosely based on the 1949 Ross MacDonald mystery novel “The Moving Target.” It pays homage to the Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe private-investigator movies that served Humphrey Bogart so well in the 1940s, but “Harper’s” tone and style is all 1960s.

There are so many twists and turns in the plot that you might need a scorecard, but as upside down as the film turns, Newman holds it together with a tough-guy panache that’s just fun to watch.

Newman is aided and abetted in fine fashion by co-stars Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelly Winters, Arthur Hill, Robert Wagner, and Pamela Tiffin in a movie that no doubt influenced Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential.”

“Harper” is an excellent Newman film that’s not quite as well known as “Cool Hand Luke” or “The Verdict,” but it’s one sure to please mystery and crime film fans.

It plays on Turner Classic Movies at 12:15 p.m. Sunday. Newman is that day’s featured performer in the channel’s month long “Summer Under the Stars” programing event.

Here is Sunday’s full schedule:

5 a.m. — The Prize (1963)
7:30 a.m. — Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)
9:45 a.m. — The Young Philadelphians (1959)

12:15 p.m. — Harper (1966)
2:30 p.m. — Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

4:30 p.m. — Cool Hand Luke (1967)
7 p.m. — The Long Hot Summer (1958)
9:15 p.m. —Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
11:15 p.m. — The MacKintosh Man (1973)
1:15 a.m. — Pocket Money (1972)
3:15 a.m. —Rachel, Rachel (1968)