Bram Stoker's Dracula has been adapted for the movies many a time. Director Andre Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) comes at this well-known tale from a bit of a different angle. This is a stripped-down telling of just one brief chapter in the novel, the account of Dracula's journey from Transylvania to London on the ship the Demeter. It is a unique approach to well-worn material and the film features just enough ideas to make it worth your time.
The film plays a bit like Alien. We have a crew who is trapped on a vessel with an unknown creature that begins feeding on them one by one, night by night. The four-week journey is mostly told through scenes as the sun goes down and the crew is hunted. It is a bit of a repetitive structure but it ensures that the film has plenty of gory kill scenes and some overall haunting imagery often.
The crew is largely made up of thinly sketched characters. There is the paternal caption (Liam Cunningham), the judgemental first mate (David Dastmalchian), the cabin boy Toby (Woody Norman), and a few bearded, grizzled crewmates. Our main character and the only one given a bit more depth is Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a doctor and astronomer who wants to return to London after not getting a job due to the color of his skin.
However, the crew is mostly doomed once a crate falls during a storm and out pops a mysterious Romani woman (Aisling Franciosi) who tells them evil is aboard. The crew are all superstitious of having a woman on board and Clemens is the only one to defend her and tries to take care of her. Paranoia and fear begin to creep in as crew members go missing each night.
Knowing ahead of time that the crew here is likely to all die does remove some of the suspense the film has. This is especially true during the film's slow first act. However, things pick up as the crew begins to understand what Dracula is. The horror elements here are well done, from the design of Dracula to the vicious deaths he executes. The script introduces some interesting ideas, like Clemens knows astrology, only to not do anything with them. It is a little frustrating how many good ideas get forgotten about in favor of a more action-oriented second half. However, this half of the film is where the film really works. Tom Stern's photography is often stunning here. Bear McCreary's score might be insistent but is also effective. Øvredal's direction shines in the attack sequences. In particular, there is a scene with someone trapped in the captain's quarters that is very effective. I wish the film would keep it all simple but there are some half-hearted attempts to add depth to the story. In particular, Clemens' experiences with racism seem tacked on.
Overall, the film works though. It has an impressive scale and production value, a good sense of creepiness and a solid lead performance.