Renfield, from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and director Chris McKay, the man behind the phenomenal The LEGO Batman Movie and the horrible Tomorrow War, imagines Dracula in the modern day, dealing with modern problems such as: his assistant, Renfield, has discovered self-help.
Nicolas Cage stars as Dracula—as perfect casting as has ever been committed to screen—and Nicholas Hoult stars as Renfield, Dracula’s assistant of nearly a century who is increasingly desperate to get out from under his boss’s tyrannical thumb. With super gory—I mean REALLY gory—action and lots of jokes, Renfield is a good enough action comedy with a monster twist, but given the talent involved on both sides of the camera, it ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.
While Nicolas Cage is GREAT casting as Dracula, and the film allows him to speed-run through several iterations of the character, from a spot-on Bela Lugosi impression to a mangled monster in recovery to the dashing “Prince of Darkness”, Cage is also saddled with a terrible set of fake teeth. There is a lot of terrific practical makeup and prosthetics in Renfield (from special makeup effects designer Christien Tinsley), but the spiky chompers Dracula sports quickly become a burden on Cage’s performance. He’s giving it his all, and there are some fun Cage-ian flourishes, but you can’t shake the feeling Cage is preoccupied with enunciating his dialogue around the vampiric dentata, and that sort of flattens his performance. You can’t help but wish he was totally unencumbered to go Full Cage as Dracula, instead of focused so much on just being intelligible.
As for Hoult, he is good as Renfield, who has become depressed in Dracula’s service, weighed down by decades of guilt and regret as the person responsible for wrangling victims to Dracula’s lair. He’s had plenty of time to repent his decision to join Dracula, and while Renfield is 100% a comedy, there are some missing dramatic beats with Renfield’s characterization. Renfield feels like the lowest common denominator version of the idea, playing off Renfield’s depression and self-esteem issues as jokes. Same with the notion of Renfield going to self-help groups for co-dependent people, it’s all just jokes. Some of the jokes are good, there’s nothing wrong with seeding a horror movie with comedy beats, but there is so much potential in the idea, and none of it is tapped in favor of quick and easy—and very surface—comedy bits about Renfield going to Old Navy for a makeover.
Awkwafina also stars as Rebecca, a New Orleans beat cop struggling in the aftermath of her father’s murder at the hands of a local criminal enterprise, the Lobo family. Rebecca is the one honest cop in a city full of corruption—the film is clearly set in New Orleans, but no one actually says “New Orleans” out loud, and the police branding is PDNO, not NOPD, which begs the question of whether or not filming permits were predicated on not directly saying the NOPD is horribly corrupt—and she is desperate to take down the Lobo family. Despite arresting failson Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), heir to the empire, in clear possession of drugs, she is forced to let him go. A second encounter with Teddy occurs in a restaurant, and Renfield witnesses Rebecca standing up to Teddy in a way that inspires him to stand up to Dracula.
This is what I mean about potential—there is SO MUCH of it in a story about a woman pushed to the brink by a corrupt system that denies her justice at every turn, and a guy who just wants the monster in his basement to leave him alone. Renfield misses every opportunity, though, to juxtapose the inherent silliness of the disparity of Rebecca and Renfield’s problems, instead treating Renfield’s problem exactly the same as Rebecca’s. They’re not the same! Renfield tacks on a half-assed message about everyday heroism, which, fine, but that would play even better if Rebecca’s problems were treated more seriously, and all the comedy derived from Renfield bumbling around with Dracula in the background of Rebecca’s story about how survivors are denied justice by a legal system not designed to protect them.
Renfield just has a bad case of Wrong Protagonist Syndrome. Rebecca should be the focus of the story, with Renfield and Dracula as a sort of sideshow distraction, which could then angle in a bit about how the modern world is so desperately corrupt that an actual monster like Dracula is no longer the worst thing out there. Renfield halfway gets there, but every opportunity to contextualize a classic monster myth against real world monstrosities like systemic corruption is missed, usually in favor of a joke or gory physical gag.
And hey, the action is pretty good! The camerawork is disappointingly shaky, robbing action sequences of flow, but there are some good sight gags and funny beats derived from Renfield’s superhuman strength. It’s just that Renfield could have been so much more. At the very least, they could have made a different choice in re: Dracula’s teeth, and thus freed up Nicolas Cage to go full tilt bananas as Dracula. Instead, we’re left with a film comprised entirely of half measures, from Cage’s performance to the very concept of Renfield rebelling against Dracula and what that even means in a world where Dracula has been reduced to a cartoon cereal monster. Renfield is funny enough and slick enough to entertain for ninety minutes, but like Renfield entering Dracula’s service, it abandons all hope of achieving anything more than mere mediocrity in favor of taking the easy way out.
Renfield is exclusively in theaters from April 14, 2023.
Attached - Nic Hoult out in London the other day.