Timber creaking and groaning, the persistent splash of the waves on the bow, rain pattering and sloshing atop the deck. Sails curling with the wind, heart beating with a rhythmic thud, veins coursing with something evil. The Demeter, a ship as a living, breathing entity, slowly making its way across the ocean unaware it is being torn apart from the inside. Stormy skies and rough waters pale in comparison to the purity of malevolence, up against a being with nothing but death in its heart. Isolation amplified and torn to pieces by razor sharp claws and leathery wings, hopeless dread infecting every frame of sincerely borrowed construction.
André Øvredal’s The Last Voyage of the Demeter is never quite new, a confident send-up of Ridley Scott’s Alien that transposes the empty void of space with the infinite ocean horizon and the inky organic exoskeleton with a grotesque winged Nosferatu, but the form it takes remains effective in its simplicity. A grimy, calloused crew on a long, lonely journey is terrorized by a menace that boards their vessel, fracturing the dynamics of the crew and challenging the litany of relationships aboard. Based on “The Captain’s Log,” a single chapter from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Øvredal finds space to transform simple ideas into a chilling sea fable, awash with the same dread-laced mythical atmosphere that permeates his 2010 fantasy found footage Troll Hunter.
Øvredal’s better tendencies, however, often seem to be fighting hard against an overwhelming tide of tired contrivances and played-out filmic construction. The opening sequence detailing the discovery of the wrecked Demeter off the coast of England is hackneyed and pointless, a similarly overlong and meandering finale serves as a sour epilogue, and Captain Eliot’s (Liam Cunningham) unending slog of narration is a constant drag on the otherwise chilling atmosphere. Yet something beneath the surface is constantly clawing to get out, every howl of the wind and haunted, rain-drenched close-up a reminder of the film’s persistently aggressive energy. Corey Hawkins commands the screen as an educated man who refuses to accept the parasitic violence being inflicted upon him, Aisling Franciosi infuses it all with penitent sorrow, Liam Cunningham embodies the hearty and mournful sea captain spirit with every fiber of his being. The film’s terrifyingly hideous rendition of Dracula is an ethereal spirit, always and never present, both a haunting apparition and violent fury.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter teeters on the brink of B-horror schlock but keeps a tight grip on the last vestiges of some distant pure horror experience through the sheer force of its atmosphere. The cracks in the façade barely hold it together and it feels moments away from collapsing in on itself and sinking down into the black depths (dangerously close by the time its impossibly corny tone shift of an ending), but something about the fable calls. The sea mist, the comforting familiarity of its inspiration, the blood-splattering across the rain-slicked deck as Dracula rips through his victims, or maybe just the slightest enough vision of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) to remind you of a time when boat cinema had a commanding hold on the studio blockbuster schedule.
It may not be revolutionizing the face of horror, but there’s an energetic efficiency to its simplicity even when the beats are scarcely surprising. Bear McCreary’s salt-weathered seabound compositions flood the film with haunted choruses and wailing strings, while Tom Stern shoots the cold, stormy nights with precise clarity. Sometimes, it’s just enough to be a seafaring disciple of Alien with the perfect dosage of contemporary schlock, knowingly and charmingly a little trite and melodramatic without wasting all the right energy on an unwatchably poor CGI monster, and just the right amount of efficient brutality.