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‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’ sails into mostly charted waters as an uninspired take on Dracula lore

<i>Rainer Bajo/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment</i><br/>Corey Hawkins in
Rainer Bajo/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
Corey Hawkins in "The Last Voyage of the Demeter."

Review by Dan Heching, CNN

(CNN) — Universal Pictures prides itself as the home of the classic movie monsters, like 1931’s “Frankenstein,” directed by James Whale, or “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi. More recent attempts to capture the dark magic of those iconic creatures has proven disastrous for the studio – one need only recall the 2017 Tom Cruise-starring misfire “The Mummy” – and this week’s “Last Voyage of the Demeter,” although at times intriguing, fails to elicit any lasting chills either.

The film, based on the creepiest parts of Bram Stoker’s classic epistolary novel “Dracula,” does score points for being easy to follow – a vessel named the Demeter travels over the course of a month with mysterious cargo from Romania to England in the 1800s – but large and gaping holes in the logic of what happens on board get in the way of becoming truly engrossed.

Case in point: As things go bump in the night and crewmen begin to get picked off in increasingly savage fashion, one can’t help but wonder, what are they doing each day before the sun sets to try and avoid more unfortunate events?

It becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly, that problems seem to only crop up in the dark, and that whatever it is stems from the mysterious and super-heavy boxes in the cargo hold. At one point, the group does search the ship, and they do break open the soil-filled boxes, but don’t really dig around or destroy them – even though one box holds a creepy cane and another contains an actual person who comes alive and starts raving about the “evil” on board. Hmmm.

But one of the largest missed opportunities here is the packaging of Dracula him– or itself. The creature has none of the range seen in Stoker’s novel, none of the bizarre and even dashing humanity that was so brilliantly (and crazily) rendered by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 opus “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which ages surprisingly well. Here, the original vampire is relegated to being a winged night demon, and even with one functionally scary and very ballsy mid-movie sequence, “Demeter” in turn is relegated to not much more than a creature feature.

It also can’t be ignored that the lore of Dracula is ripe for interesting visual, Gothic and occult touches (again, see the Coppola film), which feel lacking in this new outing – a sea fog sequence toward the end feels over the top but strangely welcome, if only for the sheer fact that it provides a new ambiance for the somewhat humdrum proceedings.

Directed by the Norwegian André Øvredal, helmer of 2010’s impressive fable “Troll Hunter,” “Demeter” stars Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre in “Straight Outta Compton”) as the able-bodied hero who also serves as a doctor, sailor and even stand-in father figure to the one child on board. And even though Hawkins does his best, along with a game cast – including Polka-Dot Man from “The Suicide Squad,” David Dastmalchian, and Liam Cunningham of “Game of Thrones” fame – the ship-set movie eventually dissolves into a series of sequences with strange, creaking noises and the unlucky folks who go and investigate, only to have their blood sucked dry.

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter” premieres August 11 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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