Movie Review: ‘Renfield’

Plot: R.M. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) finds himself in the midst of a toxic relationship. His boss is narcissistic, overly demanding, completely lacking in empathy, and downright cruel. To make things worse, he’s also Count Dracula (Nic Cage). Forced for over a hundred years to tend to Dracula’s every whim, whether it be finding shelter or kidnapping a bus full of innocent cheerleaders to consume, Renfield is exhausted. The only benefit is that when he eats bugs Renfield develops superhuman abilities for a short period of time. After nearly avoiding destruction at the hands of some vampire hunters, the duo retreats to New Orleans to recuperate. Seeking solace in group therapy sessions for co-dependent relationships and buoyed by an unexpected encounter with police officer Rebecca (Awkwafina), Renfield begins to believe he can finally extricate himself from his master. But Dracula won’t let Renfield escape from his clutches so easily…

Review: Before I get into the review proper, I want to give a disclaimer. Here’s the thing about Renfield: your enjoyment of this film is going to be directly proportional to what you expect it to be. If you go into this film with the sole purpose of watching Nic Cage ham it up as Count Dracula, you will absolutely be entertained. If you’re looking for anything beyond that (with one exception) you’re going to be disappointed. Got it? Good.

Over the last twenty years, vampire stories have been done to death. We’ve seen everything from sparkly Twilight vampires, to bloodsuckers rocking it in the Arctic (30 Days of Night), to southern gothic sexy bodice rippers (True Blood), to-God help me-Jared Leto doing whatever the fuck he did in Morbius. Hell, we even had the great emancipator taking out suckheads. In other words, some excellent peaks and some significant valleys.

Director Chris McKay’s Renfield falls somewhere in the middle.

Gory, gratuitous, and funny more often than not, Renfield makes for a mostly entertaining vampire flick that never overstays its welcome. At a slick ninety-three minutes with credits, McKay’s film is fast-paced, occasionally passing into the realm of frenetic. McKay at times feels the solution to livening up the plot is to make sure things are as loud and bombastic as possible. Unfortunately, this makes things just, well, loud and bombastic. I will say that McKay uses gore as a conduit for comedy to great effect. A scene early on where Renfield kills an assassin from a New Orleans crime family was particularly hilarious. In some ways, Renfield is Dracula by way of Troma and it mostly works. McKay also does a serviceable job filming the action set pieces, using cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen to decent effect. It’s by no means John Wick but it’s not Max Payne either. I even liked how certain flashback sequences gave homage to Tod Browning’s 1931 film and the framing of cinematographer Karl Freund.

The issue I had with Renfield is Ryan Ridley’s script. While the relationships between Renfield and Rebecca and Renfield and Dracula are fully fleshed out and the dialogue mostly works, Renfield nevertheless tries to be two movies at the same time. One movie is this funny co-dependent relationship story between Dracula and Renfield, that’s an excellent examination of narcissism. The other movie is this police crime drama of corruption where Awkwafina’s Rebecca endeavors to get justice against the Lobo crime family for murdering her father. The first movie works. The second one does not. The first movie is interesting. The second one is not. It’s like Ridley decided, “Hey let’s combine a Dracula story with a crime drama for…reasons?” It just doesn’t gel well.  

What saves this movie is Nicholas Hoult’s performance as Renfield. I’ve been a Nicholas Hoult fan ever since X-Men: First Class when he brought a fierceness and compassion to the role of Beast. He’s the type of actor that, even in a subpar film, manages to make it better. That trend continues with Renfield. In the hands of a lesser actor, the character of Renfield could have just been some sad sack you never connect with. Yet Hoult brings empathy and warmth to the character of Renfield. Despite his heinous deeds (he does bring innocent victims to Dracula after all) you can’t help but feel and root for him. Yes, Renfield is in a toxic relationship but he’s also responsible for the choices he made, a fact he eventually comes to grips with. Hoult also possesses great comedic timing playing off both Cage and Awkwafina with equal adeptness.

As fantastic as Hoult is, it is such a shame his supporting cast isn’t up to snuff. Awkwafina’s made quite a name for herself over the last few years with excellent turns in Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Raya and the Last Dragon. Her characters possess a strong balance between sassy and empathetic which makes it easy to root for her. The same cannot be said for her character of Rebecca. She’s overly aggressive, foul-mouthed for the sake of being foul-mouthed, and very thinly written. Worst of all the character comes off like an uber-grating Danny DeVito. I found Rebecca tiresome and annoying. The same can be said for Ben Schwartz’s Teddy Lobo who plays his mob enforcer like a heightened John Ralphio from Parks and Rec, only not as funny or charming. And Shohreh Aghdashloo (yes Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo) is completely wasted as Bellafrancesca the matriarch mob boss of the Lobo family.

Thankfully, Nic Cage makes up for his co-stars’ weaknesses by delivering a Dracula performance that is so hammed up you’ll be looking for the bacon. Cage is like Merrill Hess from Signs. He’s always swinging for the fences. It’s a home run or a strikeout. There’s no in-between. While this one isn’t a towering blast like Leaving Las Vegas or Pig, it does clear the fences. There are clearly heavy influences from Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. It’s almost a caricature of those actors’ versions of Dracula and it somehow works. Yet somehow Cage strikes a nice balance between goofy, intimidating, ridiculous, and lethal. You can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on screen. When you think of unique actors, Nic Cage is always at the top of the list. Never change Nic!

When you get down to where the blood hits the canines, Renfield ends up being a mixed bag. Yet there are just enough redeeming elements in Renfield to entertain, even if it doesn’t quite possess the bite I was expecting.

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Renfield: 7/10