Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult co-star in a middling horror-action-comedy
Six years ago, Universal’s attempt to resurrect the Universal Monsters brand with the so-called “Dark Universe” (modeled after Marvel’s commercially successful, shared, interconnected universe) with a bloated, effects-heavy entry, The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise in a rare break from the Mission: Impossible franchise. Said entry famously crashed and burned with critics and audiences alike, jettisoning another franchise before it had a chance to begin. But where there’s IP, there’s always a way, a way back to another attempt to leverage familiar characters into presumably new, modern settings.
That idea worked flawlessly with Leigh Whannell’s brilliant reimagining of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man three years ago, so there was a small measure of hope that it’d work again with Renfield, a mediocre-to-middling, blood-splattered, gore-filled action-horror comedy that brings everybody’s favorite undead aristocrat, Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage), back for another bite at novelist Bram Stoker’s most famous creation.
Renfield opens with Dracula’s long put-upon man-servant, Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), in sad-man voiceover mode. In a few, thankfully brief strokes, Renfield recounts how he became Dracula’s housekeeper, travel agent, and food delivery driver. As expected, Renfield begins his tale with his century-old recruitment in Transylvania, his ascension to Dracula’s right-hand ghoul, and Dracula’s near-total defeat, before fast-forwarding to present-day New Orleans (the home of another, far more recent vampire, Lestat), and a self-help group for victims of narcissistic, sociopathic abusers.
It’s there that the lonely, lonesome Renfield has found a like-minded group, though Renfield doesn’t reveal that his destructive, long-term relationship isn’t with an obsessive lover or even a horrible boss, but the master vampire himself. It’s a joke based on dramatic irony whereupon the audience knows more than the characters onscreen and director Chris McKay (The Tomorrow War, The LEGO Batman Movie) wrings that idea for all its worth and then some.
Renfield and Dracula’s co-dependent relationship — specifically Renfield’s attempts to disabuse himself from Dracula’s employ — gives Renfield: The Movie the narrative and thematic impetus for everything that follows across its 93-minute running time. As Dracula slowly recovers from his last encounter with vampire hunters, he leans hard on Renfield bringing him a fresh supply of blood, usually attached to still living, breathing, pulsing bodies, but Renfield, in apparently a renewed sense of guilt over his actions, brings Dracula only those, like the abusers of his self-help group, who truly “deserve” to be separated from their mortal coils.
So far, so promising, at least where the core relationship is concerned, but McKay and screenwriter Ryan Ridley, expanding a story idea courtesy of Robert Kirkman (Invincible, The Walking Dead), essentially paint themselves (red) into a corner story-wise. With apparently nowhere else to go beyond the bare bones of the premise, they connect Renfield to Rebecca Quincey (Awkwafina), a New Orleans traffic cop eager to bring the crime family led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her coke-fueled son, Tedward (Ben Schwartz), to justice, extrajudicial if necessary, judicial if not.
With the NOPD brought and paid for by the Lobo family and corruption at every turn, Rebecca reluctantly agrees to ally herself with Renfield, especially after the latter inadvertently becomes a hero, saving Rebecca and a restaurant filled with unsuspecting patrons, from an undisciplined attack by a violent street gang. In a major departure from Stoker’s novel and, it should be added, an obvious nod to the revenue-generating superhero genre, Renfield gains enhanced speed, power, and reaction time when he ingests an insect. Cue dismemberment and decapitations of random henchmen in animal masks.
The yawn-inducing, derivative plot quickly devolves into a series of semi-well-executed set pieces involving Renfield and Rebecca on one side of the ledger and everyone else on the other, with a newly rejuvenated Dracula, slightly peeved at Renfield’s newly reformed backbone and eager to return Renfield back into his subservient, cowering form, as the wildcard.
In an unsurprising, but no less welcome, turn, Cage plays Dracula as a flamboyant scene- and neck-chewing narcissist, using every psychological trick in the Master Gaslighter’s Book to keep Renfield in the fold. Cage’s Dracula takes his cues from Bela Lugosi’s character-defining performance, adds a dollop of Christopher Lee’s feral, ravenous vampire, and switches it up just enough to make the role unmistakable his own. When Dracula’s onscreen, Renfield: The Movie is rarely dull or boring. When he’s not, especially once the crime-drama element moves into the foreground, dull and boring become apt descriptions.
That’s through no fault of Hoult, who’s evolved into a fine comic actor, or Awkwafina, a performer who’s proven adept at handling broad comedy and subtle, character-driven drama, but it is the fault of a screenplay that repeatedly leaves them with little else to do except whatever actions are needed to advance the plot or drop one-liners that miss all too often.
Renfield opens theatrically on Friday, April 14th, across North America.