Amusing, tongue-in-cheek performances by Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage can’t save this lifeless horror comedy
A captive of the infamous Prince Dracula (Nicolas Cage) since the early 1930s, Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has dutifully done his Master’s dirty work in collecting fresh victims to ensure Dracula’s survival–enduring all sorts of mental and physical abuse from Dracula, victim, and vampire-hunter alike along the way. There are perks–where Dracula gains his powers from human lives, Renfield can use bugs to supercharge himself into committing John Wick-style feats of action. However, times are changing, including societal thoughts on toxic abusive relationships. Drawn to a support group in search of abuse victims to aid in Dracula’s latest recovery period, Renfield begins to re-evaluate his crippling role as Dracula’s servant…and tries to rehabilitate his self-worth before his Master can return to full power.
While the Renfield character has been a mainstay of Dracula lore throughout the decades, Renfield marks one of the first occurrences that the supporting role has pivoted to a lead. Upon its announcement alongside the casting of Hoult and Cage, it seemed like a much-needed shot in the arm for the character in the vein of other successful vampire comedies like What We Do in the Shadows. Produced by the original home of Tod Browning’s Dracula and coming from veteran comedy director Chris McKay, there was rife potential for a film that both skewered and paid homage to a horror icon–infusing the seductive gloom of the vampire genre with an equally compelling sense of action and humor.
Renfield quickly delivers on these expectations in its opening act, anchored by gleefully ghoulish performances by both Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage. Opening with skillful usage of the 1931 Dracula that superimposes Cage and Hoult in the place of Lugosi and Dwight Frye, it’s clear McKay and company have a degree of reverence for their source material before diving headfirst into some wonderfully gory comedy. Hoult plays up every miserable moment of Renfield’s thankless life, with all the toil and muck being the servant of a vampire acquires. In the first of the film’s novel ideas, Renfield mitigates the grim moral quandaries of his job by targeting the antagonists of those in his support group–providing Dracula with food while helping his acquaintances escape their toxic relationships. By tempering the craven Renfield with a hilarious degree of moral relativism, Hoult proves himself to be a charming lead.
Likewise, Dracula is nearly everything one would expect from Cage’s return to vampiredom. Played a debonair air fracturing under eons of lurking in society’s shadows, Cage’s Dracula is rife with bizarre inflections and tics yet never loses his ability to command a scene. Practical makeup is given spare chances to shine as Dracula recovers from his latest encounter with vampire hunters, with chunks of flesh and sinew hanging off Cage as he feebly tries to maintain his aristocratic flair. He also firmly commits to Renfield’s positioning of Dracula as a narcissistic abuser, frequently weaponizing his seductive powers to reframe himself as the true “victim” of his relationship with Renfield.
However, much of Renfield’s promise bleeds out over the scant 93-minute runtime as the plot kicks into gear. Awkwafina plays Rebecca, a gritty New Orleans beat cop determined to take down the Lobo crime family that played a role in her cop father’s death. However, the Lobos–headed over by imposing matriarch Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and bumbling loudmouth Teddy (Ben Schwartz)–stay out of the clutches of the law due to corruption running rampant in Rebecca’s department. Teddy Lobos’ latest ill-conceived violent rampage causes Renfield to meet Rebecca, sparking a friendship that not only puts Renfield on the path of becoming a hero but the Lobos in the direction of an unholy alliance with Dracula.
If the above sounds like an entirely different film than what Renfield’s first act may suggest, it’s because this plot feels just as out of place throughout the rest of the film. Renfield hits its highs when focused on the toxic relationships between Hoult and Cage, especially as Renfield becomes more drawn to the idea of saving innocent lives rather than sacrificing them. However, Renfield suffers when it feels obligated to return to this half-baked retread of cop/action films–one that provides enough tread for Renfield to feebly justify its premise but buries whatever promise it may hold.
Awkwafina has proven herself as an actress and a master of balancing comedic and dramatic tones, and Rebecca on paper has enough agency to command her own film. However, Rebecca onscreen, much like much of the film’s supporting cast, feels tonally mismatched from what Cage and Hoult are (appropriately) delivering. Rebecca’s fiery charge against the Lobos (not to mention her dedication to police work) stops and starts as is convenient for the plot. Aghdashloo makes a meal of her short screentime by providing magnetic menace to her crime leader but is frequently undercut by Schwartz’s far-too-obnoxious Teddy. While Schwartz’s bombastic brand of humor has served him well in many other roles, Teddy feels like Parks and Rec’s Jean-Ralphio by way of Scarface to the nth degree–quickly becoming an annoying weight that Renfield can’t seem to shake.
Perhaps there’s an earlier cut that more appropriately balances Renfield’s varying tones and ideas, but myriad odd editing choices might signify a film that’s been test-screened and studio-noted to within an inch of its life. Many of Renfield’s more humorous lines from the film’s trailer have been left on the cutting room floor in favor of more expository dialogue, with even more jokes placed within the film’s truncating VoiceOver, or during shots that conveniently don’t show characters speaking onscreen. One egregious scene features Awkwafina exploring a crime scene with her partner. Either she’s delivering VO, or her delivered dialogue seemingly doesn’t match up with her silent mouth onscreen; the fact that it’s impossible to tell may speak to a hail-mary pass in the editing room to ensure that any possible viewer might buy into the threadbare logic of these particular sequences. Additional sequences make leaps and bounds of logic that wouldn’t pass muster in an episode of NCIS, let alone a major studio film.
Much of the film’s headache-inducing action sequences are just as haphazardly cut, with rapid-fire editing and buckets of virtual blood doing their best to mask what seems like a quickly dwindling budget. If it was played for laughs that one of Renfield’s powers might be the ability to emerge from a viscera-spewing fight without a trip to the dry cleaners, it would have been one of Renfield’s more successful jokes. However, the action sequences instead feel like another aspect of McKay’s film that feels underdeveloped–and worse, a bit wholly uncommitted to. Cinematography choices that play up Argento-like clashes of color are initially intriguing and subtle as if evoking the feel of pulp horror comics and Hammer films of the 1970s. However, as the gore and fight scenes reveal their budgetary limitations, the film’s aesthetic makes for a finale that looks like it was shot in the San Francisco Armory.
While both Cage and Hoult’s delightfully committed performances deliver on the film’s premise, the film’s haphazard, stitched-together approach in every other respect reveals just how Renfield has been bled dry of effective humor or enjoyment.
Renfield arrives in theaters on April 14th, 2023 courtesy of Universal Pictures.