Vampire Rules: The Last Voyage of the Demeter
It’s the last week of August which means that Halloween season is well underway. Spirit Halloween stores have now risen from the dead, once more inhabiting the husks of once vibrant Toys R’Us and Bed Bath & Beyond box stores everywhere.
It also means it’s time to visit films from the despised lesser genre of horror.
Also, I need to get this review written while the movie is still reasonably fresh in my head.
This movie frankly had worse luck than it deserves.
“Dream Works is going to be seriously gouged by this one. At a budget of $45 million, it’s survivable but painful.
What is really killing it is the complete loss of the foreign box office. Dream Works was partnered with a film company called E-1. E-1 was the company that all of the FBO distribution rights for Last Voyage were contracted through. At the last minute, E-1 got bought up by Lion’s Gate which shredded all of Dream Works FBO contracts through the now defunct E-1.
While I’m on the record as being very doubtful about this movie, I’m hearing from people whose opinions I trust that Last Voyage isn’t Woke, in fact, it’s a throwback to the old Hammer horror films and as my loyal Darklings know, The Dark Herald do love him some Hammer films. I may have to steal time for this one before the Demeter suffers the now inevitable fate of her namesake.”
Consequently, Dream Works knew it was going to get hosed but it tossed it in the theaters with the bare minimum of marketing necessary to let people know it even exists. I predict with confidence this one will be dumped on Netflix in time for Halloween.
While it is a good, atmospheric horror movie, I do have some notes.
Last Voyage of the Demeter is based on the very few log entries that Bram Stoker created for his novel, Dracula. The filmmakers largely played fair with that.
Chapter seven of Dracula recounts the discovery off the coast of England of a wrecked sailing ship that had crashed on the rocks. The ship was a sailing clipper named the Demeter. The corpse of her captain was found at the helm, he had tied himself to the wheel with a crucifix tied to the wheel with him.
Here are Stoker’s words:
LOG OF THE “DEMETER”
Varna to Whitby
Written 18 July, things so strange happening, that I shall keep accurate note henceforth till we land.
On 6 July we finished taking in cargo, silver sand and boxes of earth. At noon set sail. East wind, fresh. Crew, five hands . . . two mates, cook, and myself, (captain). (*the movie made the addition of a Ship’s Doctor to the log*)
On 11 July at dawn entered Bosphorus. Boarded by Turkish Customs officers. Backsheesh. All correct. Under way at 4 p. m.
On 12 July through Dardanelles. More Customs officers and flagboat of guarding squadron. Backsheesh again. Work of officers thorough, but quick. Want us off soon. At dark passed into Archipelago.
On 13 July passed Cape Matapan. Crew dissatisfied about something. Seemed scared, but would not speak out.
On 14 July was somewhat anxious about crew. Men all steady fellows, who sailed with me before. Mate could not make out what was wrong. They only told him there was something, and crossed themselves. Mate lost temper with one of them that day and struck him. Expected fierce quarrel, but all was quiet.
On 16 July mate reported in the morning that one of the crew, Petrofsky, was missing. Could not account for it. Took larboard watch eight bells last night, was relieved by Amramoff, but did not go to bunk. Men more downcast than ever. All said they expected something of the kind, but would not say more than there was SOMETHING aboard. Mate getting very impatient with them. Feared some trouble ahead.
On 17 July, yesterday, one of the men, Olgaren, came to my cabin, and in an awestruck way confided to me that he thought there was a strange man aboard the ship. He said that in his watch he had been sheltering behind the deckhouse, as there was a rain storm, when he saw a tall, thin man, who was not like any of the crew, come up the companionway, and go along the deck forward and disappear. He followed cautiously, but when he got to bows found no one, and the hatchways were all closed. He was in a panic of superstitious fear, and I am afraid the panic may spread. To allay it, I shall today search the entire ship carefully from stem to stern.
Later in the day I got together the whole crew, and told them, as they evidently thought there was some one in the ship, we would search from stem to stern. First mate angry, said it was folly, and to yield to such foolish ideas would demoralise the men, said he would engage to keep them out of trouble with the handspike. I let him take the helm, while the rest began a thorough search, all keeping abreast, with lanterns. We left no corner unsearched. As there were only the big wooden boxes, there were no odd corners where a man could hide. Men much relieved when search over, and went back to work cheerfully. First mate scowled, but said nothing.
22 July.–Rough weather last three days, and all hands busy with sails, no time to be frightened. Men seem to have forgotten their dread. Mate cheerful again, and all on good terms. Praised men for work in bad weather. Passed Gibraltar and out through Straits. All well.
24 July.–There seems some doom over this ship. Already a hand short, and entering the Bay of Biscay with wild weather ahead, and yet last night another man lost, disappeared. Like the first, he came off his watch and was not seen again. Men all in a panic of fear, sent a round robin, asking to have double watch, as they fear to be alone. Mate angry. Fear there will be some trouble, as either he or the men will do some violence.
28 July.–Four days in hell, knocking about in a sort of malestrom, and the wind a tempest. No sleep for any one. Men all worn out. Hardly know how to set a watch, since no one fit to go on. Second mate volunteered to steer and watch, and let men snatch a few hours sleep. Wind abating, seas still terrific, but feel them less, as ship is steadier.
29 July.–Another tragedy. Had single watch tonight, as crew too tired to double. When morning watch came on deck could find no one except steersman. Raised outcry, and all came on deck. Thorough search, but no one found. Are now without second mate, and crew in a panic. Mate and I agreed to go armed henceforth and wait for any sign of cause.
30 July.–Last night. Rejoiced we are nearing England. Weather fine, all sails set. Retired worn out, slept soundly, awakened by mate telling me that both man of watch and steersman missing. Only self and mate and two hands left to work ship.
1 August.–Two days of fog, and not a sail sighted. Had hoped when in the English Channel to be able to signal for help or get in somewhere. Not having power to work sails, have to run before wind. Dare not lower, as could not raise them again. We seem to be drifting to some terrible doom. Mate now more demoralised than either of men. His stronger nature seems to have worked inwardly against himself. Men are beyond fear, working stolidly and patiently, with minds made up to worst. They are Russian, he Roumanian.
2 August, midnight.–Woke up from few minutes sleep by hearing a cry, seemingly outside my port. Could see nothing in fog. Rushed on deck, and ran against mate. Tells me he heard cry and ran, but no sign of man on watch. One more gone. Lord, help us! Mate says we must be past Straits of Dover, as in a moment of fog lifting he saw North Foreland, just as he heard the man cry out. If so we are now off in the North Sea, and only God can guide us in the fog, which seems to move with us, and God seems to have deserted us.
There have been surprisingly few attempts to make a film about the doomed Demeter.
3 August.–At midnight I went to relieve the man at the wheel and when I got to it found no one there. The wind was steady, and as we ran before it there was no yawing. I dared not leave it, so shouted for the mate. After a few seconds, he rushed up on deck in his flannels. He looked wild-eyed and haggard, and I greatly fear his reason has given way. He came close to me and whispered hoarsely, with his
mouth to my ear, as though fearing the very air might hear. “It is here. I know it now. On the watch last night I saw It, like a man, tall and thin, and ghastly pale. It was in the bows, and looking out. I crept behind It, and gave it my knife, but the knife went through It, empty as the air.” And as he spoke he took the knife and drove it savagely into space. Then he went on, “But It is here, and I’ll find It. It is in the hold, perhaps in one of those boxes. I’ll unscrew them one by one and see. You work the helm.” And with a warning look and his finger on his lip, he went below. There was springing up a choppy wind, and I could not leave the helm. I saw him come out on deck again with a tool chest and lantern, and go down the forward hatchway. He is mad, stark, raving mad, and it’s no use my trying to stop him. He can’t hurt those big boxes, they are invoiced as clay, and to pull them about is as harmless a thing as he can do. So here I stay and mind the helm, and write these notes. I can only trust in God and wait till the fog clears. Then, if I can’t steer to any harbour with the wind that is, I shall cut down sails, and lie by, and signal for help . . .
It is nearly all over now. Just as I was beginning to hope that the mate would come out calmer, for I heard him knocking away at something in the hold, and work is good for him, there came up the hatchway a sudden, startled scream, which made my blood run cold, and up on the deck he came as if shot from a gun, a raging madman, with his eyes rolling and his face convulsed with fear. “Save me! Save me!” he cried, and then looked round on the blanket of fog. His horror turned to despair, and in a steady voice he said, “You had better come too, captain, before it is too late. He is there! I know the secret now. The sea will save me from Him, and it is all that is left!” Before I could say a word, or move forward to seize him, he sprang on the bulwark and deliberately threw himself into the sea. I suppose I know the secret too, now. It was this madman who had got rid of the men one by one, and now he has followed them himself. God help me! How am I to account for all these horrors when I get to port? When I get to port! Will that ever be?
4 August.–Still fog, which the sunrise cannot pierce, I know there is sunrise because I am a sailor, why else I know not. I dared not go below, I dared not leave the helm, so here all night I stayed, and in the dimness of the night I saw it, Him! God, forgive me, but the mate was right to jump overboard. It was better to die like a man. To die like a sailor in blue water, no man can object. But I am captain, and I must not leave my ship. But I shall baffle this fiend or monster, for I shall tie my hands to the wheel when my strength begins to fail, and along with them I shall tie that which He, It, dare not touch. And then, come good wind or foul, I shall save my soul, and my honour as a captain. I am growing weaker, and the night is coming on. If He can look me in the face again, I may not have time to act . . .If we are wrecked, mayhap this bottle may be found, and those who find it may understand. If not . . . well, then all men shall know that I have been true to my trust. God and the Blessed Virgin and the Saints help a poor ignorant soul trying to do his duty . . .
The rest of the chapter is about the mundanities of a shipwreck’s legalities in terms of salvage rights. It was mentioned that the captain was removed from his last post and laid to rest.
This movie started as someone’s passion project. There was initially a determined effort to stick as closely as possible with the log entries. Bram Stoker is, in fact, credited as one of the film’s writers. Some critics were complaining about Dracula being reduced to a nameless boogieman but in the book, the crew never heard or read the name Dracula. The vampire did not cordially introduce himself before devouring his victims. So that was actually required.
However, some liberties were taken. Some welcome others not at all.
The movie starts with Constables heading to the lighthouse keeper’s cottage during a storm. He is dragged out to a battered hulk that has just washed up on shore. The first man aboard was a young constable who appears to be in shock and states, he will not go abroad again.
The ship’s log is discovered and a guided narration begins as it’s read.
The atmosphere is very much a call back to both Hammer Films and Coppola’s Dracula (granted that was a call back to Hammer in its own right).
The main POV character is a black doctor who graduated from Oxford and has somehow washed up on the shores of Romania. When he hears that a ship named the Demeter is looking for hands and is bound for London he tries to get a berth. He was initially refused because of his scrawniness and color. However, he shortly saves the Captain’s son when a crate falls and nearly kills the boy.
The closest we ever get to hearing Dracula’s name is when his crates of Earth are being embarked and they are clearly marked with a black dragon. One of the crewmen storms off the ship at the sight of it, thus creating an opening for Doctor Clemens.
The captain’s son, Tobe, takes the Doctor under his wing and shows him around the Demeter. There was a great deal of detail work done on the Demeter’s interiors. It was appropriately dark and funeral. It was meant to invoke an atmosphere of being slightly out of time. Demeter was sailing a tramp in an age where steam had largely surpassed the clipper ships.
We get to know the crew as Tobe introduces them. The ship’s cook is a devout Christian who will not serve a man at his table who takes the Lord’s Name in vain. (Sigh, put a pin in the Cook, we are circling back to him).
The Demeter sets sail and the gypsies who brought them Dracula’s crates cross themselves as the Demeter passes out of the harbor.
Good atmospheric stuff.
The captain informs the first mate that the size of the bonus for this run will be enough for him to retire after this voyage, and he can become Demeter’s skipper ahead of schedule. The captain mentions that, “I promised the boy’s mother.”
There are a few false scares at first but then the ship clears the Straits and things become creepy. It starts with the rats all disappearing. Then one of the Dragon crates breaks a peasant girl is found inside of it. The Doctor finally gets to do some doctoring, although it would be grounds for a malpractice suit today. He decides the girl’s blood is infected and he gives her several transfusions of his own. Frankly, that should kill her but in fairness, this was Stoker’s idea. I cringed every time I saw it but I had to let that one go.
The ship’s livestock is attacked in the night and all are killed.
At this point, the big bonuses going to the crew are now mentioned as a reason for none of them wanting to put into port. With all the weird stuff happening on Demeter. The story needed a reason for the Captain and crew to stay the course when the smart thing would have been to head for the nearest port and assess the situation safely. So that is fair too.
The crewmen start disappearing in the order mentioned in the book.
The girl comes to and relates how she comes from a village at the base of a mountain castle where a monster has ruled her people for generations. And that the monster is aboard the ship and had been feeding on her until they discovered her.
The story progresses as you think it would. Various crew members die, one of them turns and burns up in daylight. Tobe is attacked and this time the transfusion kills the kid. The captain’s son catches fire when it’s time for his burial at sea.
The cook fleas the ship and here is where things start to go south for the movie. The cross has no effect on the vampire.
The vampire rules in this film, were I suspect originally a faithful copy of Stoker’s. Garlic and wild roses were a problem for Dracula in the novel. Crosses didn’t actually burn him but he avoided them whenever possible. Whitethorn wood was a serious problem for Vlad. Also, he could be killed by a blessed bullet and was finally killed by a Texas Bowie Knife, (Quincy Morris has only ever gotten the credit he deserves once in film).
But in this movie, no weaknesses were clear other than not liking gunfire. He was absolutely unfazed by the cross because God is dead in Hollywood. Modern filmmakers are simply too uncomfortable with Christianity having any kind of power in the world. So that was one very big strike against this film. It broke its promise of fidelity to Bram Stoker’s book.
About the gunfire. That was provided by the peasant girl. When it got down to the last four humans, she turned into a 2023 kick-ass, girl-boss. Another strike.
And the third strike was provided by the Doctor. Racism is bad and he couldn’t get any jobs anywhere because of it.
There were plenty of Westernized Gentlemen who got degrees in Britain and returned to their homes in the Empire. To include women doctors.
He could have easily landed a gig at a Christian Mission if nothing else. Claiming he couldn’t get a job anywhere is modern Hollywood historical revisionism, based on nothing more than the assumed ignorance of the audience members.
Joke’s on you Dream Works! This movie didn’t have an audience.
The finale dipped into jump scares and action scenes abandoning the atmospheric horror that had built the first half of the film.
The girl and the doctor are the last ones left alive and jump ship but she turns into a vampire. However, being a girl boss, she resists the urge to drink the doctor and waits for sun up when she politely incinerates herself.
The epilogue has the Doctor discovering the crates were headed to Carfax Abbey and beginning his hunt for Dracula.
I strongly suspect that in the first version of this script, we discover that the doctor had been using an assumed name but was now going to be known as Van Helsing. I’m not sure why they felt the need to change that part. I would have accepted it, even if the Doctor was black. He might have needed a South African origin but Apartheid wasn’t started until 1948.
Of course, accepting that would have involved the producers getting past their own made-up bullshit version of history.
In summary: It’s watchable. The things that annoyed me weren’t fatal in a horror movie, although they did take me out of the story.
If comes on and you’re in the mood it’s worth a watch. But I wouldn’t make a special effort.
The Dark Herald Recommends with (certain) Reservations. (3/5)