The production, which is the latest attempt to reinvent a Gothic horror classic from Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, led to the construction of a nearly full-sized replica of a 19th century cargo vessel, which was the biggest sailing rig ever conceived for the film’s water tank in Malta. And to get in the film’s mindset, the entire cast, including co-stars Corey Hawkins and David Dastmalchian, were required to learn how to work together as a crew, even taken out on a sailboat in one of the more watery parts of Germany. And the way Cunningham tells it, it was an experience to remember.
“We went out on a sailboat with some people,” Cunningham recalls, “and the guys had to learn how to use the ropes and put sails up, and all that sort of thing. So they did ask me if I wanted to get involved and I went, ‘I’m the captain, I wouldn’t do that. But I’m so happy to watch!’” After a knowing chuckle he adds, “So I watched the rest of the cast getting welts and blisters on their hands while I laughed uproariously while drinking a beer on the back of the boat. It was fantastic! Best kind of research I’ve ever done.”
When we sat down with Cunningham, it was some weeks still before the SAG-AFTRA strike commenced, and the veteran actor seemed to be in good spirits about The Last Voyage of the Demeter, because in his mind it’s the first Dracula movie in ages to attempt to return to the genuine horror of Stoker’s 1897 novel. Traditionally, Cunningham doesn’t read the source material (if there is any) for his roles. The way he sees it, “My job is to interpret the script that’s there.” This philosophy even led to him being at occasional odds with the author whose literary masterwork inspired Game of Thrones.
“George R.R. Martin was not happy with me because I hadn’t read any of the books,” says Cunningham. “He kept asking me at every premiere I went to if I’d read them yet, and I said ‘no.’ I just don’t have the attention span for books that look like house bricks.”
And yet, in the case of The Last Voyage of the Demeter, the source which inspired this entire two-hour movie was a mere five pages—and it’s the scariest portion of that book, by far; a grim and doom-laden log written by the terrified hand of Cunningham’s character. “It’s weird because it fires up your imagination,” Cunningham says. “It’s so sparse and you get to use your head to horrify yourself.” He even suggests it gets to an age-old debate at the heart of horror fiction: You either don’t show the monster at all or you show him all over the place. But The Last Voyage of the Demeter, like Dracula, hovers somewhere in the middle. You see glimpses: a silhouette in the storm; a clawed hand around a dying man’s face; a figure standing before Cunningham’s crucifix, which shakes beneath the weight of a torrential downpour… but Bela Lugosi, this ain’t.
Having read the captain’s log in preparation for Demeter, Cunningham “very much” believes Stoker should be counted among the long line of Irish authors whose literature is weighed down by fixations with doom and despair.