Reflecting on the making of his debut feature Shivers, David Cronenberg once remarked that he figured his vision for an ultra-modern horror film exploring current anxieties would be commercially unviable due to the genre being primarily associated with the gothic castle settings of the Universal and Hammer pictures of the sort. Well, now in an age where the genre is nothing if not modern explorations of the age of smartphones, Trump’s presidency, generational trauma, pandemic-inspired doomerism, etc., the gothic seems highly unique. So one partly wants to welcome André Øvredal’s maybe-out-of-touch The Last Voyage of the Demeter, based on a lone chapter from Bram Stoker’s vampire urtext, yet there’s a modern anxiety at play here too: the ubiquity of intellectual property.

Of course, this is the second Dracula movie released by Universal this year (after Renfield), with the vampire reskinned from caped romantic anti-hero to Nosferatu-esque gargoyle, à la how every Spider-Verse movie self-awarely notes that they get away with shoveling dozens of web-slinger flicks down our throats just by adding a new hat or whatever. And yes: for using a chapter that covered around ten pages of the original novel––or was rather succinctly summed up by the shot of a turning boat wheel in Francis Ford Coppola’s great film––this is a rather transparent example of IP exploitation, if not abuse. Though if needing to know how long this project has been kicking around, just be aware that yesteryear studio hacks David Slade and Marcus Nispel were once attached to the script. If Demeter were able to deliver on the modest expectations of a Universal Pictures August release (see last year’s Beast) these concerns wouldn’t pop up.

Arriving in Romania to pick up cargo for delivery to London is the crew of the Demeter, comprising the captain (Liam Cunningham), some bearded toque guy (genre stalwart David Dastmalchian chewing scenery with a funny accent), and the ship doctor Clemens (Corey Hawkins), plus a few indistinguishable European actors and a kid. Racial tension is developed by the lack of eye contact Clemens’ shipmates give him, and it can be said that the casting of a Black actor in the lead at least partly upends the xenophobic subtext of Stoker’s novel. But the sense of clever building or deconstruction of the mythos basically ends there, as the cargo reveals itself to be a winged CGI ghoul who will pick them off one by one. 

A bit of a bad feeling about Demeter‘s overall direction came when the “save the cat” screenwriter device, as penned by Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, was used less than ten minutes in. (Same for the maudlin tone induced from having a child character, Toby (Woody Norman) aboard the ship.) Though the film’s chief problem is that showing the creature too much and too early––despite his nifty design which seems a combination of the Salem’s Lot iteration of the vampire and the Jeepers Creepers baddie––removes much tension from the proceedings, especially at a nearly two-hour runtime where the limitations of a story that didn’t need to be told in the first place become very apparent.

Willing to at least get a little more mean-spirited in its back half, Demeter starts winning one over a little, but the lack of a truly memorable setpiece (not enough interesting variations on people having their blood sucked!) ultimately sinks (bad pun alert) the enterprise. At least Eli Roth and Russell Crowe’s ill-fated Dracula spinoff Harker would’ve delivered on that. It can still happen, yes? Peacock original?

The Last Voyage of the Demeter opens in theaters on Friday, August 11.

Grade: C-

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