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Tuesday, August 22, 2023

How ‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’ Resurrects a Pivotal Chapter in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’

The following contains major spoilers for The Last Voyage of the Demeter.

If the horror genre has a grandfather, it’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. First published in 1897, the epistolary novel follows a group of English socialites who cross paths with a centuries-old vampire traversing the continent in search of fresh victims. From Francis Ford Coppola and Werner Herzog to Stephen King and Mel Brooks, it seems nearly every horror creator has reimagined the legendary text. After more than two centuries and countless variations, you’d think there’d be nothing left on these literary bones.

Enter The Last Voyage of the Demeter: André Øvredal’s take on Stoker’s seventh chapter. A short, but pivotal episode in the vampire’s saga, this adaptation fleshes out the log of a doomed vessel and unearths an entirely new tale from the ashes of an old story. 

Dracula begins in Transylvania. London solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to the remote castle of Count Dracula to assist with a real estate transaction and slowly realizes that he has become a prisoner. With the transaction complete, the Count transports himself to England and begins feeding on Lucy Westenra, the best friend of Harker’s fiancé Mina. This ignites the second and third acts of the novel as Lucy’s death spawns a group of fearless vampire hunters who chase the bloodsucking beast back to Transylvania. Nestled between these iconic sequences is a horrific journey across the sea. Though Stoker leaves most of this harrowing trek to the reader’s imagination, the final voyage of the ill-fated ship is just as frightening as anything that occurs before or after. 

Stoker tells us very little about the Demeter’s ordeal. A newspaper clipping from “The Dailygraph” describes a ship blown in by a storm with no one left alive onboard. The decomposing body of the ship’s unnamed captain is found lashed to the wheel with a crucifix wrapped in his hands, but other than a large dog who runs to shore, the Demeter is deserted. Reading the captain’s bizarre log presents a horrific explanation. When members of the company begin disappearing one by one, the captain starts to suspect that something monstrous lurks onboard. After watching the last remaining crew member jump into the sea, the captain affixes himself to the helm and resolves to go down with the ship. Still early in the novel, Stoker does not reveal much of his monster here, saving Dracula’s overt terror for later chapters. However, The Last Voyage of the Demeter benefits from a century of cinematic vampires pervading public consciousness. As a supplement to a world-famous story, Øvredal has no need to hide this legendary villain in the shadows.  

‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’ Review – Epic Horror Adventure Goes for the Jugular

Dracula in the rain aboard the Demeter

Øvredal’s story also begins with the ominous storm. As lightning flashes through the sky, lighthouse workers and local authorities try to aid the drifting ship smashing into the rocky shore. We only see the vessel from a distance, but a peek at the log of Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham) describes the crew’s desperate attempt to defeat a dreadful monster. We then jump back one month in time to the 6 July departure from a Russian port. All seems well at first. Aside from a few introductory squabbles, the crew gets on well and the captain’s grandson Toby (Woody Norman) tends to the livestock while learning the seafaring trade. But something sinister stalks the decks of the Demeter at night. Mr. Clemens (Corey Hawkins) finds a stowaway buried in a crate full of earth. Nearly dead, Anna (Aisling Franciosi) eventually recovers and tells of a monster from her village name Dracula. With this diverse cast, Screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz have gathered seeds from Stoker’s sparse chapter and fleshed out the Demeter’s story while providing parallels to some of the classic novel’s most famous characters. 

Bookended with dispatches from The Dailygraph, most of Stoker’s seventh chapter consists of the captain’s log. Øvredal brings several of these passages to life including a harrowing scene that provides our first glimpse of the monster. On 17 July, the captain writes that a deckhand called Olgaren has reported seeing a mysterious man hiding onboard 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 the bows, found no one, the hatchways were all closed.” Øvredal brings this passage to life with the addition of Clemens who joins Olgaren (Stefan Kapicic) on the ship’s deck. Stoker does not mention this character again, but Øvredal’s film gives us the brutal details of his nightmarish demise. 

Øvredal captures other elements of this distressing chronicle as the ship drifts through a heavy and demoralizing mist. On 2 August the captain writes, “… only God can guide us in the fog, which seems to move with us; and God seems to have deserted us.” The log’s penultimate entry recounts the ship’s mate throwing himself into the fog and sea, hoping to escape the hellish creature onboard. Øvredal combines these two entries with the death of Joseph (Jon Jon Briones), the ship’s religious cook. Convinced the Lord will save him, the frightened man takes one of the lifeboats and, armed only with a lamp and his bible, rows into the mist. A mysterious being circles the rowboat from above and we’re left to assume the worst. The boat eventually drifts back with only a pool of blood where the cook once sat. 

Demeter Bram Stoker

One notable addition to the ship’s crew is a deckhand who joins the crew at the Varna port. Also trained in medicine, Clemens is an educated man hoping to find a job as a physician while attempting to make sense of a world that would punish him for the color of his skin. When he finds Anna sick in the cargo hold, Clemens performs a series of blood transfusions to rid her body of a mysterious toxin, directly mirroring Stoker’s hero, Professor Van Helsing. Called in to treat the ailing Lucy Westenra, Van Helsing enhances the novel’s overarching theme by embracing both superstition and science. He prescribes similar transfusions for Lucy, but draws on his knowledge of folklore for alternative remedies to Dracula’s curse. Clemens initially rejects the superstitions of the Demeter’s crew, but eventually believes Anna’s tales of a monster that feeds on the blood of the living. As the sole crew member to make it to shore, Clemens vows to hunt down the powerful vampire. Like Van Helsing, a brief encounter with Dracula sets the young doctor on a quest to rid the world of this parasitic beast. 

Another addition to this doomed voyage is the charming and sympathetic Toby. Grandson to Captain Eliot, the entire crew treats him like their own son. Despite this protection, Toby experiences one of the story’s most upsetting deaths. Told to wait in his grandfather’s cabin, the vampiric Olgaren tries to break through the door and attack him. As the crew comes to his rescue, a larger threat appears from inside the barricaded cabin. Dracula looms over the frightened child and drinks his blood as the crew stares on in horror. He falls into a coma-like sleep due to the vampire’s bite and fails to respond to blood transfusions. 

This story may be wholly new, but it bears a striking resemblance to the unfortunate double death of Lucy Westenra. Having been visited by Dracula in the night, Stoker’s damsel in distress also succumbs to the vampire’s bite. Shortly after her entombment, rumors of a “bloofer lady” targeting children begin to circulate. Van Helsing directs her fiancé and friends to cut off her head and drive a stake through her heart, effectively killing the poor woman a second time. Toby also suffers this second death. As the crew prepares to bury him at sea, his grieving grandfather thinks he sees movement under the child-sized shroud. When Eliot removes the sheet, Toby’s eyes do indeed open only to reveal the demonic gaze of a vampire. He reaches for his grandfather’s neck as the sunlight causes him to burst into flames. 

Demeter production design

As a stowaway on the Demeter and the film’s only female character, Anna also provides an analog to the ill-fated Lucy. Though the two women have very little in common, they both become food for Count Dracula. Lucy receives nightly visits from the lurking vampire and eventually dies of a mysterious blood-related illness. Anna, fully aware of the Count’s horrific practice, has been brought aboard the Demeter as sustenance for the long voyage. Both women also spend a significant portion of the story in a coma-like state, though their stories differ wildly. Wealthy and beautiful, Lucy has men lining up to give her their blood. Her three suitors, along with Van Helsing and Harker, cross the continent to kill the vampire and avenge her horrific death. A poor villager essentially sold to the Count, Anna has no one to look after her. The superstitious crew believe that a woman onboard the Demeter will surely bring bad luck and insist on throwing her into the sea. Unlike Lucy, Anna has only Clemens to fight for her life. 

Both women become transformed by the vampire’s bite, though they take different routes to their inevitable end. Lucy’s undead life is snuffed out by her grieving fiancé, while Anna recognizes the symptoms of vampirism beginning to take over her body. Knowing she will soon become a monster, she creates a sort of funeral pyre out of the ship’s wreckage and bursts into flames as the sun rises over the sea. 

The Dailygraph clipping that introduces the chapter makes note of a large dog jumping from the ship and disappearing into the night. Citizens of Whitby, hoping to find a silver lining in this tragedy, search for the dog but their efforts only reveal more death. Instead of the shipwrecked dog, they stumble upon a half-bred mastiff with its throat ripped open. Øvredal nods to this element of the story with the upsetting death of the Demeter’s dog, a loyal companion placed in Toby’s care. However, closer inspection reveals a more terrifying truth. Stoker’s version of the captain’s log makes no mention of a dog onboard. With a detailed list of the ship’s crew and cargo, the he would surely have mentioned any pet present as an extension of the company. The creature that rushes to shore is likely Dracula in animal form, a dog-like creature similar to the wolf that bursts into Lucy’s bedchamber. 

Øvredal’s Dracula also makes it to land, but in a much more hideous form. Inspired by Max Schreck’s Count Orlok, this version of Dracula has skin the color of the night sky, glowing red eyes, an angular face, and menacing fangs. With bat-like wings, Dracula escapes the sinking Demeter and flies to shore. Having jumped overboard before sabotaging the ship, Clemens swims to land as well, avoiding the vessel’s discovery at Whitby. Having recovered from the hellish voyage, he later recognizes the distinctive knocking of a gold-tipped cane in a crowded pub and looks up to see the smirking Count now dressed to the nines. Like Van Helsing, he vows revenge and we leave the Demeter’s lone survivor preparing to chase Dracula to the ends of the earth. 

The Last Voyage of the Demeter Review

The post How ‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’ Resurrects a Pivotal Chapter in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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