In the realm of early 2023 studio movies seemingly built around “what ifs” (‘What if there was a Cocaine Bear?’ ‘What if a spaceman fought dinosaurs?’), Renfield at least manages to top those in the ways it embraces its absurdity. This modern take on the connection between Dracula and his loyal servant misses out on cleverer ways to honestly deal with their toxic relationship in favor of strangely wanting to go the action route. However, thanks to a wickedly unhinged performance from Nicolas Cage and reliable work from most of the other stars, this incredibly gory vampire comedy provides a fun enough take on the Prince of Darkness…and the one who does his bidding.
Humorously serving as a canonical follow-up to 1931’s Dracula with Bela Lugosi, Nicholas Hoult stars as R. M. Renfield, the long-suffering servant of Dracula (Cage). Essentially, Renfield’s life functions as a cycle resembling the various Dracula movies. The Count kills many people, only to be dispatched by Van Helsing or whoever, only for Renfield to nurse him back to life. This film picks up in modern-day New Orleans, and Renfield is torn. While his choice to hang out at group meetings for people in bad relationships is giving him info on potential fodder he can bring to Dracula, Renfield is also hearing what they have to say and realizing he does need to stand up to his creator if he ever wants to break away from this life of servitude.
Now, I’m always doing what I can to judge the movie I watched, as opposed to what I would have preferred to see, but it’s hard for me not to consider a dark comedy more concerned with Renfield truly facing a psychological struggle with a vampiric demon that can literally tap into his mind. However, because it’s a major studio movie, Renfield has a plot devoted to violent mobsters and corrupt cops. Plus, in this version of Dracula’s lore, Renfield is also given superhuman abilities. Anytime he eats a bug, he’s suddenly Neo from The Matrix…if Neo was willing to occasionally rip the arms off of people and beat others down with said appendages.
Does this wrinkle add to the fun of the film? Well, honestly, yes. I can only put so much against a movie that seems to aggressively want to push past the interesting introspective stuff for the sake of fight scenes that seemingly want to outdo an Evil Dead movie a week before an actual new Evil Dead movie hits theaters. Yes, Renfield is that over the top with its violence, but it is all very comic book-y.
Director Chris McKay, who has gone from one end of the spectrum (The Lego Batman Movie) to another (The Tomorrow War), knows enough about staging clever set pieces that incorporate humor and tension. I wish the screenplay/story by Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman had more to offer overall, but hey, if Renfield primarily wants to serve as a delivery mechanism for wacky gore-filled action, I don’t get a lot of that done decently at this level. I only wish more of the vampire rules were a bit clearer in their relation to the action.
The other fortunate thing is having a very game Nicolas Cage ready to play. Honestly, it’s not as though he wasn’t prepared for this. I could guess that many of the rings Dracula wears are his own, and being set in New Orleans means Cage is likely living just a short drive away from the set. Plus, the guy loves this stuff. He loves Dracula and the various takes from different actors over the decades. Getting to provide his own is probably a dream and an excellent way to finally get back into the shoes of a creature of the night so many years after Vampire’s Kiss. The commitment is clear. Some of the best stuff in this film is seeing Dracula in the early scenes, knowing Cage went through hours of makeup to depict him in different forms of his underpowered self before becoming the properly groomed and snazzily dressed version we’re used to.
Meanwhile, Hoult, the film’s true lead, is ideally cast here. He needs to play anxious and neurotic in his efforts to please his master while also being believable as a potential alternate for a Kingsman movie. This is one of those films that wants to get away with clever narration, complete with freezeframes and other devices created through the magic of film editing. For the most part, it suits this film. Hoult can charm his way through much of what we see here, as he’s very much aiming at being a fighting puppy dog of a man that seems akin to his romantic zombie character from Warm Bodies.
Less successful is Awkwafina, who feels like the results of trying to cast this film with several funny people but straddling her with so much of the plot. As a cop with a chip on her shoulder, outside of some ordinary scenes with Hoult, her aggressive attitude doesn’t do much to land other aspects of the film’s humor in a way that fits with the ideal tone Renfield is going for. On top of that, her character’s journey is so rooted in the villains that I again have to wonder how necessary it was to throw mobsters at this story rather than make it, if anything, a three-way relationship film about Renfield, Dracula, and Awkwafina’s Officer Quincy.
Elsewhere, Ben Schwartz does exactly what you can expect from his type of energy as a mob guy named Teddy Lobo. And, on top of this, there’s the wild choice to add in the great Shohreh Aghdashloo as his mother and a local mob boss. Whether she’s just into vampire movies or got a decent check out of this, the Oscar-nominated Iranian actress is on hand to class up Renfield and share scenes with Cage in full-on wild Cage mode.
Sure, Renfield is ultimately very thin on what it’s after. The heavy lean on action removes much of the chance for us to see more of the man’s journey in a manner fit for more than just sitcom-level stakes. However, this is a colorful and gory blast of a film fulfilling enough of its promise to go in a somewhat new direction for a Dracula movie. Having Cage in a film like this is certainly welcome, but really, this messy movie had me at around the second or third time Renfield was involved in removing someone’s limbs and pummeling them with it.