Movie Review: “Renfield”


Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in "Renfield"

Over the years, there have been a number of films that combine the action, comedy and horror genres, such as “They Live,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “Day Shift,” but this particular hybrid has never been given its own subgenre label, despite being its own unique thing. The latest entry in this subset is “Renfield,” which doesn’t really do any of those respective genres well but has enough merit when they’re combined to make it fairly entertaining. The action isn’t particularly innovative, the comedy is mostly fine, and the horror is mainly limited to plot elements and gore gags, but when those mediocre aspects come together, “Renfield” is more than just the sum of its parts.

Dracula is real (and played by Nicolas Cage), but there are some changes to the classic mythos, specifically having to do with his familiar, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult). While still subservient to his vampiric master many decades later, the servant eats bugs, not to model himself after his dark overlord but to gain a quick boost of strength, speed and agility, which allows him to disarm prey and fight back armed criminals whose paths he happens to cross. That last part is crucial, as Renfield finds himself caught in the middle of a grudge between a police officer (Awkwafina) and a crime family headed by its petulant scion (Ben Schwartz). Add to this Dracula’s ravenous appetite and constant abuse, and Renfield is now in the midst of a lot of bloody trouble.

“Renfield” has some genuine highlights and points worthy of recommendation. Easily the biggest and best part of director Chris McKay’s film is Cage. It’s readily apparent that the actor is having a ton of fun in the role, occasionally delivering melodramatically evil dialogue behind layers of prosthetics, all while retaining that sinister regal aspect of the classic Universal Pictures interpretation of the character. To be certain, it is not Cage’s most unhinged performance — that honor belongs to “Zandalee” — but it’s an outsized turn that is delightful while conjuring up past works like “Vampire’s Kiss” and “Ghost Rider.” Every moment he’s on screen is genuinely terrific, and the actor makes “Renfield” worth watching just to see how he sinks his teeth into the iconic part. This Dracula spends most of his time with a martini glass full of blood in his hand, pontificating about his own greatness and how he’s the apex predator when not belittling his servant or hankering for some fresh prey to feast upon. It’s a fun performance that would be a highlight of any film but stands out even more when compared to the rest of “Renfield.”

That isn’t to say that the other cast members are bad or there’s a particularly weak performance (though some are certainly not as strong as others). Hoult makes for a good leading man, even if it feels like he’s doing a Hugh Grant impersonation a lot of the time, and Awkwafina is fine as the sassy cop facing down the intimidating gang while also trying to wrap her head around the whole “Dracula is real” bit. Schwartz is also memorable as perhaps the most inept criminal ever who still walks through life with a tremendous sense of unearned bravado.

The real issue with “Renfield” is the script by Ryan Ridley, based on a screen story by Robert Kirkman (of “Walking Dead” fame). Every time there’s something interesting or good in the film, like the co-dependent support group that Renfield attends, it’s usually followed by something clichéd or unremarkable. Additionally, the overly dramatic cops vs. crooks plot (which shoehorns in a tragic backstory involving a dead father) feels incredibly stiff and forced; it’s an extrmely convoluted turn that is even more ridiculous than Renfield getting superpowers from eating flies.

The comedy of “Renfield” is inconsistent, as is the action portion. McKay wisely uses lots of gore and splatter in surprisingly inventive ways that give the sequences a nice boost, especially when it involves practical effects. However, too much of the cinematography and editing is rushed and doesn’t properly highlight these otherwise engrossing aspects. The constant cuts are presumably meant to communicate just how fast Renfield is moving and the quickened pace of the combat, but instead, it isolates and truncates too many of these moments rather than letting them breathe and unfold in a more spectacular fashion. This becomes a greater problem as the movie goes along, especially since it contains more action than horror or comedy — a bad decision given that it’s arguably the weakest part of this genre mash-up.

It’s tempting to recommend “Renfield” just on the strength of Cage’s tremendous performance. Unfortunately, too much of the surrounding film is simply mediocre. It’s a fun movie that would be forgettable if not for Dracula, but it squanders too much potential by following obvious and boring story beats that aren’t executed very well. “Renfield” may best be served less as a whole movie and more as a highlight reel of Cage’s scenes, with a few other moments sprinkled in for additional entertainment. There’s nothing else revolutionary or revelatory about “Renfield”; it’s fine in the moment but not much else. It’s unfortunate that one of the best performances of the year so far is buried in a fairly middling movie, but Cage’s Dracula makes it impossible for “Renfield” to be completely dismissed.


Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz
Director: Chris McKay

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