If only the rest of the film lived up to the performance that Nicholas Cage is delivering. But Chris McKay’s Renfield takes an interesting premise and squanders it, abandoning the most interesting relationship at the heart of it for lots of therapy rhetoric and a romance plot line that never seems to work.
Nicholas Cage has had a fascinating career, from highs like Moonstruck and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent to lows that I won’t bother mentioning. He’s been in his fair share of bad films, but there’s no denying that when Cage commits to a performance, it’s a real treat. So Cage playing a campy version of Dracula, who is not only sucking the blood out of his victims but also sucking the joy out of his familiar, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), is certainly something to behold.
If only the rest of the film lived up to the performance that Cage is delivering. But Chris McKay’s Renfield takes an interesting premise and squanders it, abandoning the most interesting relationship at the heart of it for lots of therapy rhetoric and a romance plot line that never seems to work. Ryan Ridley’s script, based on Robert Kirkman’s story, frames the film as a sequel to the 1931 Dracula film, based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.
Renfield opens on a support group for victims of destructive relationships, as people in the group share their stories of suffering emotional abuse at the hands of their partner. Our hero Renfield, a dandy-ish former lawyer now in the employ of the world’s most famous vampire, can relate thanks to his highly toxic codependent relationship with his boss. He’s also there to scope out victims to keep Dracula fed; after chewing up some bugs to feed his power (yes, it’s weird in the film too), he goes after the abusive jerks about which he’s heard, incapacitates them, and takes them home for dinner.
The beginning of the movie shows a lot of promise. The action sequences are delightfully gory and silly, and the teeth and makeup work on Cage is fantastic. The clever styling of Renfield’s backstory to make it match the 1931 film that serves as this one’s predecessor is also a nice touch. It’s all a bit of campy fun, especially as Dracula rants that he needs pure people to be able to reform to his full power after having been vanquished by Van Helsing years ago (including nuns and a “busload of cheerleaders”!).
Where the film goes wrong is straying away from this relationship between Dracula and Renfield. As Dracula plots how to take over the world, Renfield gets tangled up with the local mafia, led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her annoying son Teddy (Ben Schwartz). Enter Awkwafina, as a traffic cop who has her own personal vendetta against New Orlean’s biggest crime family. Rebecca’s father was also a police officer, who was killed by the Lobo family, and she’s determined to be the one to bring them to justice.
Our two storylines converge when Renfield happens to be in the restaurant that the Lobos ambush to try to kill Rebecca. However, with Renfield’s help, she’s able to fend them off and save the people on the scene. He’s inspired to try to do something good instead of sacrificing his morals to go along with Dracula’s plans and reinvents himself. What really drains the life out of the film is the attempt to force chemistry between Renfield and Rebecca, when there are simply no sparks between Hoult and Awkwafina.
For the most part, everyone is fine in their roles – Cage excluded, as he absolutely shines – but it’s not enough to keep the film from showing how much it doesn’t know what to do with its concept. Even at only 93 minutes long, it feels like it’s being drawn out to be feature-length while also not giving enough time to the rather interesting idea of a deep dive into the relationship between Dracula and his familiar through a modern psychological lens.
Cage delivers a fun performance, and Hoult continues to show he can stay afloat even in a film that doesn’t quite know what to do with him. But Renfield doesn’t have many other redeeming features aside from some flashy costumes and makeup. If it were willing to really commit to exploring the dynamic between its two male characters – and maybe even complicate if it’s a purely platonic bond – it might have been a worthy addition to the canon of vampire media. As it stands, you’d be better off rewatching a Twilight film.
Should Be Considered: None
Where to Watch: In Theaters
Living out her childhood dreams of being a writer, just like Jo March
Favorite Directors: Kenneth Branagh and Greta Gerwig
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