By James Murphy
The adaptation of a solitary, nautical chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula has spent decades in development and, while the work is not entirely irredeemable, arguably creators should have spent a few decades charting its course, or simply buried at sea.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror classic, Dracula, features a chapter, ‘The Captain’s Log’, which details the infamous’ Count’s seafaring journey from Romania to England on the doomed Demeter. Expanding into a feature film a preliminary chapter of a work that is embedded in the popular consciousness presents various challenges: the audience knows the villain will not die and the protagonists all likely will; how do you turn a prelude into a climax and why should we care when we know the what and the why, just not the how?
Fortunately, director André Øvredal and written by Bragi F. Schut Jr do a fine job of making us care about the galley of salty sailors and stowaways. Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham is destined, it seems, to play grizzled old captains; like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, his Captain Elliot is getting too old for this stuff and plans to retire after this one last trip. Right. He’s joined aboard by Ant-Man and Suicide Squad’s David Dastmalchian, who is not is usual, funny self, appropriately The Walking Dead’s Corey Hawkins, whose racial oppressed doctor is the ship’s man of science and Aisling Franciosi as an ailing Romani stowaway with a secret. Each character is richly developed, so Dracula’s reign of blood means something.
Unfortunately, though, Stoker’s vampire creation is reduced to your garden variety B-grade horror monster. Javier Botet’s Count doesn’t charm or seduce; he just slithers, slashes, and utters monosyllables. He is, undoubtedly, consistently terrifying, but terror is the only note struck. Stoker’s sexual themes are largely ignored. The ship’s passengers, through their dialogue, do explore spirituality versus science, racism and gender roles and fears of contagion but you just wish a more nuanced representation of the villain was offered.
Demeter does manage to offer some surprise twists and sets the stage for sequels; whether it will live beyond this life, though, remains to be seen.