There are a handful of moments sprinkled throughout director Chris McKay’s film Renfield which are so inspired and ridiculous (in a good way) that you can kind of see why Universal greenlighted the project, even though it’s struggled to make monster movies in recent years. But while Nicolas Cage’s turn as Prince of the Vampires is intermittently delightful and deranged (again, in a good way), the rest of Renfield is so sloppy, derivative and juvenile that it’s almost a wonder to behold on the big screen, the mess that it is.
Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s characters Dracula, Renfield is a comical dive into the life and times of one Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the simpering, lantern-jawed, perpetually terrified servant bound to THE Dracula (Cage). Renfield doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the details of how Dracula, a sadistic demon, first ensnared Renfield, a lawyer, and convinced him that he would get immortality in exchange for the will of the vampire. But as the film opens with the couple at a particularly heartbreaking moment in their past, Renfield has long since begun to wonder what life would be like if he weren’t constantly in the grip of another. world of his undead master.
After decades of waiting for Dracula feet and fists and having to settle for temporary vampires…as powers derived from eating insects, Renfield finds himself suddenly struck by his conscience and the sneaky suspicion that his boss might be something of a narcissist. No matter how hard Renfield tries to break free from Dracula, it’s only a matter of time before he returns ready to serve again – even when he’s presented with very viable opportunities to break free, like when a group of hunters almost manages to destroy it in one of the first scenes of the film.
From almost the time Renfield started telling Renfieldit’s immediately obvious that screenwriter Ryan Ridley’s screenplay – based on a story by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman – doesn’t really trust you to understand the basic plot elements, and it’s a feeling that only intensifies as the film progresses. Not only does Renfield directly tell you that he’s sick of Dracula tearing his guts out in moments of rage, but it’s also an idea that the film repeatedly reinforces as it follows the duo through New Orleans. after the vampire is badly injured in a fight that leaves him in need of recovery.
As disgusting as it is fascinating to watch Cage chew up landscapes like the charred, mutilated shell of a perpetually lit vampire as Bela Lugosi in 1931 takes on the character, Renfield becomes deeply boring in moments where it focuses on Renfield attending meetings with a self-help group for people in toxic relationships. None of the other participants in Renfield’s group can understand how literal he is as he describes how his “boss” is a monster that drains life force. But they can all be linked to living in the shadow of manipulative and violent people, which Renfield tries to illustrate with a barrage of jokes that, at times, play as if shedding light on abusive relationships.
With all its co-dependency jokes and the familiar of a vampire struggling to become independent, it’s impossible to watch Renfield and not seeing a much more goofy, gory riff on some of the same dynamics that make What we do in the shadows so always fun. Renfield – a wiry, ill-dressed man to whom Hoult tries to lend goofy English charm – is no Guillermo. But they are similar enough that Renfield strives to differentiate itself with an unnecessarily loaded action-thriller involving traffic cop Rebecca (Awkwafina) and her drug-dealing enemies, Teddy (Ben Schwartz) and Bella-Francesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
It’s rare that you see such a strong cast let down almost evenly by writing that doesn’t do much to play to its strengths. But this is precisely the case with Renfield, which becomes an oddly co-pagandistic story about Renfield being inspired by Rebecca to take a proper stand against Dracula. This reality becomes increasingly disappointing the more time you spend with Cage’s Dracula who, despite being framed and played rather campily, is riveting worth watching, both because of Cage’s signature Caginess but also because of Renfieldsurprisingly solid action sequences involving him. As strange as it may seem Renfield as a notable part of Dracula’s canon, its portrayal of his classic powers like transforming into a cloud of bats or smoke is legitimately impressive.
It’s also kind of weird to see Dracula murder people like a mortal combat character, but Renfield at least tries to have fun with its over-the-top action set pieces, making it something akin to enjoyable. That said, the things that work Renfield are vastly overtaken by those who aren’t, and that’s a shame because it’s not hard to imagine a version of the film that could have been much better with a little massage and a better grip on what makes these interesting characters.
Renfield also stars Adrian Martinez, Brandon Scott Jones, Jenna Kanell, Bess Rous, James Moses Black, Caroline Williams and Miles Doleac. The film is currently in theaters.
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