There’s something to be said about exploring those toxic relationships through humor, especially in the workplace. So, while underappreciated work drones fighting back against their oppressive bosses isn’t exactly a new concept for comedies, Chris McKay‘s Renfield put a potentially fun twist on it by modernizing the dynamics between Universal monsters and their underlings. So he turns Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage) into an insufferable boss and his assistant Renfield (Nicolas Hoult) into an endearing servant just looking for gratitude. The result is a campy and over-the-top wacky action-comedy that needs some serious refinement in storytelling that we could sink our teeth into.
The idea that Nicolas Cage plays one of the most iconic horror characters with campy energy should have been done long ago. It’s bizarre, weird, and wild. And that reflects all of the roles he has played throughout his career. So for him to play Dracula in such a campy way is something we should expect. His Count Dracula relishes disparaging his underlings, especially when it comes to the long-serving Renfield.
And because Renfield has been granted the gift of eternal life from his grandmaster, one would think that he would value it. But, of course, when you spend your life delivering victims to your boss only to eat bugs in exchange for such a gift and some superpowers, it’s easy to understand why the assistant might want a little respect.
Set in modern-day New Orleans, Renfield is tasked with gathering new blood for his overlord after he sustained injuries from vampire hunters. After years of servitude, Renfield questions whether he can continue this line of work. So, like any frustrated and exhausted employee working for a toxic boss, he attends group meetings to come to terms with his codependency and find a solution to be more independent. And to help build around the character, the film adds a crime angle to it by throwing mob prince Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz) and his mob-boss mom Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo) into the mix. The nature of their relationship attracts the attention of Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a tough police officer looking for justice for the murder of her cop father.
Renfield sounds good on paper, but it relies too heavily on Cage’s campy performance as the overly demanding boss and its repetitive jokes. The former is not so much a unique take on the character. It’s just one that is played with Cage’s energy. As such, it creates a lot of laughs and some genuinely frightening moments. And modernizing that into a person who is also a toxic boss adds to the fun. But, at the same time, his over-the-top performances suck the life out of the film by not giving the space the other cast needs to strut their stuff. So when the camera turns away from him, the film can become devoid of life.
It doesn’t help that Renfield has a weak script. The story is pretty thin, with Renfield trying to find the strength to get the respect he deserves and stop enabling his boss’ awful behavior. And for the most part, Hoult does his best with the material he gets. He’s certainly a charming lead and plays well opposite Awkwafina. But the problem is that Renfield has so many concepts but has little time to string them together to make a cohesive story. Plots are introduced but never fully fleshed out, which would have benefited the film and given it more clarity. Instead, Renfield hopes to get by on Cage’s zany performance as Count Dracula, Hoult’s charms, and just beating the same my boss is a jerk joke to death.
And there’s a surprising amount of physicality in this comedy, with Hoult providing a bulk of the action as he fights various criminals and mobsters. It’s deliciously bloody and just as over-the-top as Cage’s performance as Dracula. And it wouldn’t be a Dracula film if the Count didn’t get in on the action. Cage is committed to everything Dracula stands for, not just in his presence but also in his feasting ways. But what sounds good on paper doesn’t help in the clarity. Throwing in some clever action sequences makes things murkier on what the film is trying to say.
Sadly, Renfield’s lack of clarity and anemic storytelling takes away from what could have been a great film. With so many concepts, it’s hard to know what one is biting into. While Cage’s campy performance as Count Dracula, Hoult’s charms, and the stylized action are fun to watch, they aren’t enough to sustain a constant entertaining blood flow.