Nicolas Cage never met a movie whose scenery he couldn’t chew, and Renfield gives the star an ideal opportunity to sink his teeth into a truly juicy role: Dracula, the legendary bloodsucker who feeds on humans, lives forever, and is engaged in a perpetual war with the church.
Sporting a pasty complexion, slicked-back hair, and a variety of stylish suits (including one that’s luscious red velvet, and another with glittering black lapels) that go perfectly with his top hat and cane, his Count is a distinctly Cage-ian riff on Bela Lugosi—all heavily accented diabolical imperiousness and giggling, twittering, freakish affectation. He’s the prince of pretentious darkness, and the saving grace of this otherwise slapdash variation on the Bram Stoker legend.
Director Chris McKay’s follow-up to The Tomorrow War is ostensibly a horror-comedy, yet in one of many misbegotten decisions, Renfield places an inordinate amount of emphasis on R-rated supernatural action. Apparently, the director believes that staging gruesome one-against-many skirmishes will generate laughs so long as a few limbs are torn off and bodies are obliterated in explosions of blood.
This turns out to be a false assumption, as there’s absolutely nothing amusing or creative about the film’s numerous ultra-violent set pieces. They’re just time-fillers designed to cast the material in a slightly more superhero-ish light—a notion underlined by the fact that its protagonist gains his amazing physical powers by consuming his favorite snack: insects.
That would be Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the tyrannical Transylvanian monster’s “familiar,” who decades ago fell into unholy servitude—an origin story that’s recounted in a cheeky Tod Browning-style black-and-white intro—and is now unhappy with his eternal lot in life finding food for his master.
To cope with his misery, Renfield attends a support group for people in unhealthy dependent relationships. However, he’s not only there to commiserate over his subservient status; he also participates in order to learn about the other attendees’ bastard boyfriends and girlfriends, since they’re prime meat to serve up to Dracula. And in present-day New Orleans, acquiring nourishment for his boss is of the utmost importance, given that the undead Transylvanian is recuperating from a prologue run-in with vampire hunters and men of the cloth that has left him catastrophically charred.
An early recurring joke about the awfulness of ska music intimates that Renfield has an absurdist pulse, but that’s unfortunately not the case. While it has a cute premise, Ryan Ridley’s script works hard to avoid developing it. Hoult’s minion mopes and frets before crossing paths with traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) via an incident involving Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), the tough-talking, heavily tattooed buffoon son of local mob queen Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
There’s no point explaining the intricate means by which these characters become intertwined because the film barely cares; suffice it to say, Rebecca wants revenge against the Lobo empire for killing her dad, and upon receiving no help from her corrupt colleagues, she turns to Renfield after he risks his life to save her in a brutal fight with Teddy and his werewolf-masked henchmen.
Rebecca and Renfield inspire each other to be courageous, independent, and to boldly fight back against their respective oppressive overlords. Sadly, that’s about all there is to Renfield, which moves at a rapid-fire pace that implies massive post-production cutting—although whether that’s to cover up glaring plot holes or to limit the unfunny proceedings to a speedy 93 minutes (with credits) is anyone’s guess.
Determined to break free from Dracula’s employ, Renfield takes the advice of his support-group mates and strikes out on his own, renting a studio apartment (and decorating it with Successories posters), buying a colorful new wardrobe, and reading self-help books about escaping the clutches of authoritarian narcissists. The montage that relays that process, alas, is so fast that it never locates a snappy rhythm—a common tempo-related shortcoming that’s exacerbated by frenzied camerawork and choppy editing.
There are a handful of inspired visuals in Renfield, such as Dracula’s throne of blood bags in a makeshift abandoned-hospital lair decorated with candles and corpses. Renfield’s journey of self-empowerment, however, is an idea that requires more elaboration than it’s given here.
Hoult makes for a charming little man determined to stand up for himself and attain the autonomy he desperately craves. Nonetheless, he’s a minor one-dimensional joke, and his romantic sparks with Awkwafina’s Rebecca are so meager that their scenes together prove DOA. Not helping matters, every Awkwafina one-liner lands with a creaky thud; few actors generate so little humor from so much profane mugging. At least the reliably goofy Schwartz occasionally gets on Cage’s weirdo wavelength, especially when introducing his mom to the Count like an excitable five-year-old showing off his impressive handiwork.
Renfield needs more plot, comedy, and terror, and yet considering how little of those it manages to concoct, perhaps it’s merciful that McKay blazes through his tale like a child holding his nose and wolfing down his unpleasant vegetables.
Cage is the only one who appears to recognize that the film should be unabashedly ridiculous. Consequently, he’s the sole reason to pay attention to it. Hiccupping giddily in the middle of a sentence, theatrically placing his long-nailed finger over his mouth, or indulging Renfield’s lies and excuses with over-the-top reactions and gestures, the Oscar winner grins and growls with unhinged abandon, enhancing his every line through sheer bravado.
In doing so, Cage unbalances Renfield, making Dracula the compelling center of attention and rendering the title character a tiresome afterthought. An additional rewrite (or two) might have lent the tale a bit more equilibrium. Then again, a better tack would have been to reconceive the entire project so that Cage’s iconic villain was the main attraction.
As it stands, the film gets modest mileage from his exaggerated performance as well as a couple of passable gags, like Renfield making the mistake of buying an apartment door mat that reads “Welcome! Come in!”, thereby accidentally granting Dracula easy entry into his abode. The rest of the time, though, it peddles flimsy and forgettable nonsense that makes one wish they were watching What We Do in the Shadows instead.
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