Tuesday, August 15, 2023


 by JB

At last! A return to old-fashioned horror.

By “old-fashioned horror,” I mean a movie that prizes a solid premise over gimmicks, script over sensation, performances over special effects, and morality over... gore. I must say I found this film’s Rotten Tomatoes score (after only ONE day in theatres) to be a little daunting. The premise here is tantalizing, taking the short “Captain’s Log” chapter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and fleshing it out to feature film length; the trailer promised great things; and I had hoped that this would be more than just Universal’s latest IP cash grab. Yet here were modern audiences giving The Last Voyage of the Demeter a rating of... only “28% Fresh.” (By Sunday night, that had jumped to 48%.)
Boy, do I feel out of step. I loved the film! I loved every suspenseful, clever minute of it. Stephen King tweeted that it reminded him of one of the original Hammer films and that’s an apt comparison: superb art direction and cinematography, intense performances, good dialogue, and a few good jump scares. This film has everything that I go to horror movies to see and experience. Last week, I was underwhelmed by Talk to Me; it was just announced that A24 plans a sequel to that one. But it seems the world no longer cares what the 61-year-old horror fan/cineaste curmudgeon thinks.

The Plot in Brief: Captain Eliot (Liam Cunningham) discovers that he’s a few hands short as he is about to set sail on The Demeter from Bulgaria to London on a routine cargo run. He tasks his first mate Wojchek (David Dastmalchian) with finding more hands in port. Wojchek initially rejects Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a medical doctor with sailing experience, because he doesn’t think he can handle the rigors of life at sea.
A last-minute act of heroism secures Clemens a berth, and the Demeter is loaded with its curious cargo: fifty wooden crates of dirt. As the voyage begins, a series of strange, night-time occurrences convinces the small crew that they are cursed. A stowaway is discovered in the cargo hold. Then things go from bad to worse.

This film looks beautifully creepy. The filmmakers strike a rare balance between practical effects and CGI. The opening scenes on the Bulgarian dock are full of boats and costumed extras, many of which, I’m hoping, were real. The same is true aboard ship, where "real" costumes and stunts battle it out with visions from someone’s laptop. The film’s cinematography and bleak color palette are only two reasons why I’m urging my readers to see this in an honest-to-God movie theater. You’ll thank me.

The performances here are all terrific and intense. Though I never watched Game of Thrones, apparently a few of the actors here were featured in that HBO phenomenon, so if that alone motivates anyone to see The Last Voyage of the Demeter, I am happy.

Did I mention you should see this? You definitely should.
Though I have been a David Dastmalchi-fan since his disturbing, twitchy performance in The Dark Knight and his equally delightful turn as Polka-Dot Man in The Suicide Squad, in this film he is given a much meatier role and allowed to show his range. Dastmalchian here plays first mate Wojchek, and his character is the fulcrum upon which the balance of the story rests. His crewmates represent “Superstition,” and it is clear that the captain has long ago tired of trying to talk them out of their arcane beliefs. The doctor Clemens represents “Science.” Wojchek finds himself firmly in the middle of this drama and debate. He has just been told that he will assume the captain’s rank and duties when he retires. He comes from a place of superstition but slowly realizes that his future might rest on changing his worldview. One of the pleasures of The Last Voyage of the Demeter is watching Dastmalchian fight with himself to be a better man and a better sailor.
The cleverness and thought that went into this script are marvels, helping it rise above the slew of “Guess what? October’s here! Horror time!” trailers I was forced to sit through at the start of this screening. Remember, the “Captain’s Log” section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a scant 20 paragraphs long. That’s adaptation!

Those readers thinking at this juncture that the old man is recommending a stringent moral tale instead of a horror film, rest assured that the jump scares work very well, at least on me and my wife. I counted six of them; your mileage may vary. The more I think about it, though, the more I conclude that every great horror film contains a stringent moral tale. That just comes with the territory.

A stringent moral tale... with jump scares. Go see The Last Voyage of the Demeter.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't care to watch this, but now i do. Also we need more David Dastmalchi in movies