“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is many things – it’s a cracking good horror movie that is set almost entirely on a doomed ship traveling from Transylvania to London; it’s a refreshing expansion of “Dracula” lore (based on “The Captain’s Log,” a single chapter from Bram Stoker’s original novel); and it also is a nice nod to Universal Pictures’ classic monster-filled past. It’s existence, though, feels like a bit of a miracle, especially if you had followed the project’s development over the past 20 – yes, 20 – years. That might be the blink of an eye to an immortal creature of the night like Dracula, but in moviemaking terms, that’s an eternity.
Let’s take a look at where “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” started, with a spec script that shook up Hollywood, and where it ended up, as a big studio movie from Universal, with commentary from the eventual film’s director André Øvredal.
Just be warned: there are choppy waters ahead.
Origins of the Damned
When screenwriter Bragi Schut Jr. first got to Hollywood, he was working in a model shop while working on a script for a horror movie set in space. He befriended someone in the model shop, who showed Schut his portfolio. “There were these photos of this fantastic schooner with bloody tattered sails. Well, they caught my eye and I asked him what they were from, and he replied, ‘That’s the Demeter. That’s the ship that carried Dracula from Transylvania to London. It was used for a few shots in Coppola’s Dracula movie.’ And it hit me — that was my way into an ‘Alien’-type story,” Schut told Bloody Flicks in 2022.
In 2003, Phoenix Pictures, the company co-founded by Mike Medevoy (who had previously founded Orion Pictures), acquired the screenplay, announcing that they had assigned German filmmaker Robert Schwentke to direct and that Schwentke would rewrite the screenplay with his writing partner Mitch Brian. (At the time Schwentke was very hot and was tapped to make the high concept action movie “Labor Day” for Disney; it never materialized.) In 2006 a draft was done by James V. Hart, who had worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” incorporating elements of the Schut and Schwentke/Brian drafts.
In May 2009 Schwentke departed and was replaced with “Friday the 13th” remake director Marcus Nispel “with production expected to start this year.” By 2010 Nispel had been replaced with Stefan Ruzowitzky, the Austrian director behind the Oscar-winning “The Counterfeiters.” At the time the movie’s period setting and “the need to film on the water” were blamed for tripping up Nispel. In October 2010 the Los Angeles Times reported that Noomi Rapace had boarded the project as a stowaway (a character now played by Aisling Franciosi) and that Ben Kingsley was also attached (presumably playing the character now played by Liam Cunningham). It seemed like this version was getting pretty close but then Ruzowitzky left, leaving the Demeter rudderless once more.
A succession of filmmakers followed. “30 Days of Night” director David Slade took on the project in 2011, with Jude Law playing the lead role (now played by Corey Hawkins) and Kinglsey and Rapace still attached. Soon, though, Rapace would exit the project because of her commitments to Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (totally understandable). By 2012 Neil Marshall had replaced Slade, with Viggo Mortensen taking over for Law, and the involvement of Kingsley was up in the air. And then, for a decade, it seemed like no one would disturb the tomb of “The Last Voyage of the Demeter.”
Until, of course, 2019, when Amblin Partners obtained the rights, with “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” filmmaker André Øvredal attached to direct. Brad Fischer, who had been instrumental in obtaining the script all those years ago, remained on board as a producer. Dracula lives.
“I just read the script that I was given. And it was just this amazing story. And I was working with a producer Brad Fisher on another movie that in the end, we didn’t make but we’d make made this one instead. He gave me the script. And it was just this amazing ‘Alien’-on-a-ship story, out at sea with Dracula as a monster. I mean, it’s unbeatable,” Øvredal said.
Øvredal brought on writer Zak Olkewicz, who worked on “Fear Street” and “Bullet Train,” who worked on elements of the script like [Hawkins’ character] Clemens’s backstory. “And certain other details and aspects were changed,” Øvredal said. But Øvredal read one of Schut’s original drafts to compare where they started and where they wound up and was surprised. “It’s still the same story,” Øvredal said. “When you’re working on it, it feels like we’re making big changes, but when actually when you look at it and take a step back, it’s still the same movie.”
What was important to Øvredal was to make sure “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” was, in his words, “a pure horror movie.” (And the blood sure does flow.) “Dracula movies can go into sophistication and into aristocratic characterizations of Dracula, which is natural, that’s all in the novel,” Øvredal said. The section devoted to the Demeter is only a few pages in that original novel but the initial concept for the movie was enough to hook him. “It was just a brilliant idea. Anybody who hears this concept thinks, Yeah, that’s a movie.”
And while “Alien” was top of mind, Øvredal said that he wasn’t consciously relying on references. “I want the references I have in my head and in my world, to come out through me in a way. Because the moment you start referencing specific things, you start a process of copying and I always try to avoid that as best as I can.” Instead, he leaned on David Fincher’s ability to create “a stark environment,” like in “Seven;” Steven Spielberg’s “humanity that is always inspiring to me;” and Guillermo del Toro’s “visual sense of how to use the camera and how to use colors and how the specificity of his choices.” Øvredal worked with del Toro on “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and gave notes on the Dracula design for “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” which is significantly more gargoyle-y than normal. “He was included in that process,” Øvredal said coyly.
And with that, they cast off.
While almost the entire movie is set on a ship, Øvredal had no experience with ships. But he embraced the challenge. “It was wonderful to try to figure out how to design this ship, because when you read the script, you realize that the writer has really taken care of it already. He’s already designed the rooms and where they have to be in that scene, to move to that locked room to move to that hallway, then they go into the cargo hold, you can kind of trace the story based on how he sought it out,” Øvredal said. “And then we did our work on it. We created where the rooms go and how they look.”
Another challenge that Øvredal faced was characterization through action, since the movie moves so swiftly and because there is so little dialogue. And again Øvredal gladly took it on. “I love exactly that – having to portray the characters through what they do, how they handle dilemmas, how they how they behave,” Øvredal said. “I think it comes through in behavior more than in talking about their backstory. In the end, it’s all about how you deal with the situation that you’re facing. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about what happened 20 years ago.” If you stay in the moment, you stay alive.
And maybe the most impressive thing about the movie that Øvredal made was that it’s a claustrophobic movie that feels like it has considerable scope. Øvredal said that it was something that he had to grapple with on every level – everything from choosing the right camera lens and understanding where that camera is in proximity to the actors. “I love putting the camera close to the actors, because then you can see their pores you can see that presence,” Øvredal said. “It’s like when you talk to a person, you’re usually very close.” Øvredal said that it was an “important part of creating an environment.” There was a small “fight” to get a bigger ship. “The ship needs to be huge,” Øvredal said. “We need to be able to walk across and get lost in the space. And that was a big deal.” When they built the set, it was important to Øvredal that the ship was laid out properly, which you can see in the film during a sequence in which a character recites a prayer and walks from room to room.
Now that he finally made “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” something that has escaped completion for more than 20 years, Øvredal is already thinking about returning to the world for a sequel. After all, Dracula causes a fair amount of chaos once he gets to London. “If the audience embraces this movie, of course,” Øvredal said about further adventures. “There will be fun.” Hopefully it doesn’t take two decades this time.
“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is in theaters Friday, Aug. 11.