THE STORY – Renfield, the tortured aide to his narcissistic boss, Dracula, is forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding. However, after centuries of servitude, he’s ready to see if there’s a life outside the shadow of the Prince of Darkness.
THE CAST – Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Shohreh Aghdashloo & Adrian Martinez
THE TEAM – Chris McKay (Director) & Ryan Ridley (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
After directing fun, over-the-top action in the world of animation (“The Lego Batman Movie“) and CGI alien creatures (“The Tomorrow War“), director Chris McKay has partnered with Universal Pictures with an original idea from “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman to bring the classic horror movie monster Count Dracula to modern audiences with a unique spin, lots of blood and practical action effects. In what should be applauded as a refreshing move for the major Hollywood studio, this version of Dracula is not a remake of any previous film you’ve seen before but rather a new story told from the viewpoint of Dracula’s familiar (or servant), R.M. Renfield (or, otherwise known as Robert Montague Renfield). And to top it all off, the screenplay by “Rick And Morty” writer Ryan Ridley is centered around a co-dependent relationship between the narcissistic Dracula and his long-suffering lackey, who just wants to be the hero of his own story. How does that story turn out, and could we see a new direction for Universal Horror Movie monsters off the heels of this film’s reception? Let’s sink our fangs into it!
Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is suffering. In present-day New Orleans, the centuries-year-old servant to the evil and manipulative vampire known as Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage) is visiting group therapy for those in abusive relationships (run with a hopeful promise of redemption by Brandon Scott Jones). While Dracula is not currently at full strength (Cage is covered under gobbles of practical makeup in various stages of rejuvenation throughout the movie), he is still bossing Renfield around, demanding he brings him the pure blood of innocent people such as a young group of cheerleaders (“nothing sexual though” as he’s quick to state) or nuns. Renfield is trapped in an endless cycle of abuse, wanting an opportunity to get away and begin anew. That opportunity comes in the form of a chance encounter with Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a traffic cop for the New Orleans Police Department who is struggling in both her personal and professional life. Her father passed away a few years ago at the hands of the Lobo crime family (run by Shohreh Aghdashloo), and she’s been trying to take them down ever since with a corrupt police department blocking her at every turn while putting a strain on her relationship with her FBI agent sister (Camille Chen). After stopping mob enforcer Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz) from killing Rebecca and other innocent people, Renfield is finally seen by someone else as something other than the abused servant he’s been for hundreds of years. He can finally be the hero of his story and put himself first. However, as this new lease on life starts to take hold of him, Renfield’s dark master is hatching up an evil scheme of his own with the Lobo crime family, which will put the two at odds once again, but will Renfield be able to stand up to his abuser once and for all?
After an initial freeze-frame in the opening scene and Nicholas Hoult’s voiceover narration takes over, we’re given context to Renfield and Dracula’s past relationship through a well-executed black-and-white montage emulating classic film footage of the 1930s with Hoult and Cage inserted in. It’s the one and only time (unless you ask Nicholas Cage himself, who is undoubtedly having a ball riffing off his classic cinematic influences of previous Dracula performances such as Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee) where “Renfield” evokes the past, for everything else McKay displays has a refreshingly modern spin on it.
“Renfield” is at its best when McKay allows the two Nics and the story’s production to be as fun as possible. Nicholas Cage chews up the scenery with his hammy portrayal of Dracula. The typical hallmarks of the iconic character are present – he can turn into a swarm of bats, has razor-sharp fangs used to suck people’s blood, and cannot come into contact with direct sunlight. His self-absorbed, highly entertaining performance is worth putting up with the film’s other inconsistencies if you’re able to settle into McKay’s overall vibe he’s constructed out of this twisted rom-com. Hoult brings a level of profound sadness and depth to Renfield, which is never allowed to fully take form due to the confines of the type of film McKay and his team are creating. After an amusing 80’s style montage that highlights Renfield’s change of lifestyle (bright new clothes and a modest cute studio apartment all to himself), there is a confrontation between Renfield and Dracula where one can feel the screenplay is actually trying to get at something profound when it comes to its central theme of co-dependent relationships. However, the moment is short-lived and overwhelmed by many attempted gags, one-liners, and other inflated comedic performances that don’t mesh as well with the film’s tone as Hoult and Cage’s. Despite these hangups ( and, more crucially, the lack of romantic chemistry between Holut and Awkwafina), Hoult remains an engaging on-screen presence as the role requires him to be sad, comedic, romantic, and even go into full action mode.
Renfield’s strength and agility come from eating bugs, which allows Hoult to be physically hilarious in the film’s highly exaggerated action scenes. The gore is pumped up to the extreme as dozens of goons are battered, thrown, cut down, and dismembered (and then beaten with their severed limbs for good measure) in a deliriously gleeful fashion. The laughs in “Renfield” may be inconsistent, but the buckets of blood never stop flowing.
“He’s a monster,” proclaims Caitlyn (Bess Rous), a member of Renfield’s support group, as she attempts to tell everyone about her abusive relationship. While no one has ever had to deal with the monster that is Count Dracula in a relationship that contains all of the signs of physical and mental abuse, it’s unfortunate that the film’s preoccupation with delivering the most amusing final product possible couldn’t dig a bit deeper to reveal more about its distinctive spin on characters we’ve never seen explored this way. Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage certainly make “Renfield” watchable, and some audiences will have a bloody good time with the film’s action, gore, and humor. If anything, Universal’s decision to give one of its known properties a clever angle to tackle a story is a sign of hope in an industry cursed with far too many remakes and reboots. When you hear “I’m Free” by The Soup Dragons play over the credits, you’ll be more hopeful that other studios will feel free to take such thoughtful swings (even if they’re misses).