Renfield review: Nic Cage chews up scenery and people in camp vamp comedy

renfield reviewUniversal Pictures

Renfield is a one-joke movie about the toxic relationship between Dracula and his familiar. But the joke in question is so good that it sustains the film’s run-time, and makes for a winning horror-comedy.

Renfield is also a stealth sequel. The film kicks off by placing its stars inside Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula movie. So via black-and-white montage, Nicholas Hoult becomes Dwight Frye’s Renfield, and Nicolas Cage replaces Bela Lugosi’s Count.

It’s a ballsy move that risks alienating audiences that might not have seen a movie that’s nearly 100 years old. And while the sequence briefly sets up story and character, it doesn’t pay-off in any major way.

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But it starts an irreverent film in irreverent fashion, conveying that this is a Dracula you’ve seen before, but in a movie that couldn’t be more different.

Who is Renfield?

Nicholas Hoult as Renfield, with Dracula's hands on his shoulders.Universal Pictures
Nicholas Hoult as Renfield.

That prologue out the way, we meet present-day Renfield, who isn’t happy with his lot in life. A lawyer who wanted to get rich, greed so blinded him that Renfield abandoned his wife and child to become Dracula’s servant.

Meaning he does the boss’s bidding. Which mainly involves supplying victims, cleaning up the mess after bloodsucking benders end in near-catastrophe, then taking Dracula to a new town and nursing him back to health. A pattern that has repeated for the best part of a century all over the word.

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Which makes Renfield an unusual protagonist, what with that abandoned family in the past, and being an accomplice to multiple murders in the present. But he feels bad about the former, and even worse about the latter. Which prompts our so-called hero to seek help when the pair reach New Orleans.

A toxic dynamic

“The moment I’m gone, they will lock you away,” Dracula tells Renfield early in proceedings. “I am your only friend. I am the only one who cares for you.”

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Those words – and that narcissism – convince Renfield that this co-dependence might be bad for his health, so he joins a local therapy group for those trapped in toxic relationships.

This is where the movie comes to life, poking fun at the idea of vampire and familiar in What We Do in the Shadows-style, while at the same time having a pop at pop-psychology.

These scenes also give Renfield a clear goal – to get his boss out of his head, and to stop running and settle down. He’s putting himself first for a change, rather than that pesky Prince of Darkness.

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Duelling subplots

The mixture of horror and comedy works until this point. Then the movie – written by Ryan Ridley, from an idea by Robert Kirkman – throws more into the mix. A lot more.

There’s a subplot involving local crime-boss Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her hot-headed son Teddy (Ben Schwartz) trying to dominate the New Orleans drug business.

Meanwhile, cop Rebecca (Akwafina) and her FBI agent sister Kate (Camille Chen) in turn try to bring them down. Because it’s their job. And also because their family has a tragic connection to the Lobos that adds another wrinkle to the story.

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It’s a lot to process, and does dilute the purity of that central premise. But by adding crime drama to the scares and laughs, Renfield is able to shift gears altogether by transforming into an action movie. And a pretty good one at that.

Action that’s brutal and bloody

Blood fuels Dracula. Bugs do the same for Renfield. And when he chows down on insects, the latter becomes all-powerful, developing strength and agility that turns him into John Wick on speed. With fangs.

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And while it’s an unexpected turn, the action makes sense thematically, being both funny and horrific. No-more-so than during a fight at an apartment block where Renfield punches off a head, rips off a face, and detaches arms that he then uses as weapons.

Director Chris McKay has form on this front – overseeing hilarious battles in the Lego Batman Movie – and here he crafts fight scenes that are brutal, bloody, and very, very funny.

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Nic Cage IS Dracula

Nick Hoult is clearly having a ball in the role, playing both hero and villain, as well as a super-powered badass, and – when sparks fly between Renfield and Rebecca – something of a romantic lead.

But just as his character is in Dracula’s shadow, so Hoult is dwarfed by Nic Cage whenever he enters a room. This isn’t a sympathetic Count. The character is far from tortured by his curse. Instead, this Dracula is as sadistic as he is sarcastic. And as manipulative as he is monstrous.

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It’s fun seeing Dracula’s face fall into various states of disrepair as proceedings progress. Whether dreaming of world domination, or of warming himself “next to a mountain of burning corpses,” Dracula’s dialogue is wild.

For his part, Cage is dead and loving it. Never an actor who knowingly underacts, he chews scenery as he dines on victims, and the film works best whenever he’s onscreen.

The Verdict: Is Renfield good?

There are times when Renfield gets bogged down in sub-plots. Ben Schwartz is hilarious as Teddy Lobo – playing him like a cross between Sonny and Fredo Corleone. But it’s hard to care about his efforts to impress his mom.

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Similarly, Rebecca and Kate’s strained relationship takes up more time than it should, those twin threads resulting in the film trying to keep too many plates spinning at once.

There are times when Renfield is contradictory, ripping the proverbial out of pseudo psycho-babble, then making self-help the cornerstone of its resolution. There’s voiceover that’s too frequently intrusive, telling when the film should be showing. And a metaphor about monsters taking over is pretty heavy-handed.

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But when it works – in the scenes between manipulative master and feeble familiar, during those epic action sequences, and via an unexpectedly touching romance – Renfield really works, resulting in a fresh and funny take on this classic horror tale.

Renfield review score: 3/5

Renfield is a blast of blood-filled fun, no-more-so than when Nic Cage is going large in a role he was born to play.

Renfield is released in US and UK cinemas this Friday (April 14, 2023). To find out more about the history of Renfield himself, head here.

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