The selling point for Renfield is simple: the legendary Nicolas Cage plays Count Dracula. This ain’t his first foray into the world of undead bloodsuckers — Vampire’s Kiss is vintage Cage craziness, and Bringing Out the Dead could certainly be argued as a less direct foray into such things — but despite a license to really go crazy with the material, everyone’s favorite Coppola is only minimally featured throughout the film. There’s no doubt that Cage brings his all to the role, as is to be expected, and when he’s on screen Renfield is a total party, but outside of this novelty, the film proves to be a broadly pleasing, remarkably safe studio comedy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing so much as it’s a case of squandered potential. Watching Chris McKay’s colorful, energetic film, one gets the sense that a fair amount of material was left on the cutting room floor (or the embalming table drain?), leaving behind a fun, often riotous distraction that feels at every moment like it’s sprinting for its own closing credits.
The film opens strong with a “you’re probably wondering how I got here” montage that recreates footage from Browning/Freund’s 1931 film, replacing Lugosi and Frye with Cage and Hoult. It’s a real hoot, and it boldly declares that Renfield is a direct sequel to the most iconic iteration of Stoker’s novel. Nothing but respect for such a massive swing. Unfortunately, this is where the film peaks.
Here in modern day New Orleans, our hero, the titular Renfield, is starting to feel a bit jaded by the thankless task of acting as Count Dracula’s familiar. A sampling of the Count’s god-like abilities seems like small payment for the grotesque and dangerous tasks to which our pale friend has been assigned. And really, who wants to eat bugs? His newfound independent streak is bolstered by a “victims of narcissists” support group he’s been attending. It was initially meant to be a hunting ground for potential victims, but as of late, the stories shared by others in the group are starting to resonate, and when Renfield’s newfound confidence places him into a rather gory meet-cute with a justice-hungry cop (Awkwafina), which in turn places him into the path of a mob family, Dracula decides not just to clean house, but to come out of the closet, per se. The way he sees it, there’s no reason he should abide by the whims of humanity — they should be worshipping him!
It’s a lot of plot, and it mistakenly places the Renfield/Dracula relationship on the back burner, replacing it with a forgettable romance/action plot, harmed heavily by the fact that the action itself is choppy and unengaging. It is, however, gleefully bloody, and quite creatively conceived, even if choppily executed.
All in all, despite not reaching the full potential of its concept, Renfield delivers a fun moviegoing experience that will certainly be enhanced by a crowded theatrical viewing. Seeing this in a sold out festival theater was an undeniable treat, in which any gaps in quality were sufficiently filled by hearty, communal laughter. It would be a mistake to wait until this reaches home video, where it will likely be forgotten outside of the parade of memes it is sure to inspire. One dreams of a world where the now defunct Dark Universe didn’t attempt to go the MCU route, and instead served to house varied takes on the Universal Monsters properties, all under one roof. In such a situation, Renfield might have been given the edge that the source material demands, while also managing to deliver on the dark comedy it mostly succeeds with in its current state.
Directed by Chris McKay
Written by Ryan Ridley, Robert Kirkman
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz
Rated R, 93 minutes