The Plot: Robert Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has had enough of his toxic, co-dependent relationship with his boss from hell. That boss is none other than the Prince of Darkness himself, Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage). His human familiar Renfield is constantly called upon to bring him ‘food’ and protect him, bestowing a tiny portion of his power to Renfield who ingests insects to make himself stronger. When he meets mouthy New Orleans traffic cop Rebecca (Awkwafina), he finds a kindred spirit who identifies with his struggle. They team up to fight both Dracula and local crime boss Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) along with her dim-bulb son Tedward (Ben Schwartz)…
The Verdict: Dracula has been around for a long time in both literature and cinema, making the nosferatu among the most filmed characters in history and the most portrayed. There have been urbane Draculas (Bela Lugosi), feral ones (Christopher Lee), tragi-romantic ones (Gary Oldman) and an occasional funny one (George Hamilton). Not much attention is paid to his human familiar and servant Renfield, often depicted as a sad, pathetic and lost man, either insane or the only one clued into what his master is really up to with his vampire brides and the children of the night. That’s about to change though with new film Renfield, which attempts to reclaim the character for a new generation and finally give him some long-overdue 21st Century empowerment. Bram Stoker might turn in his grave at the thought of it… or then again he might just have a chuckle or two at this lively new spin on an old tale.
While Universal’s connected Dark Universe of resurrected monster movies has long since been staked by mediocre box office returns, there have been standalone instalments like The Invisible Man tipping their hats at the studio’s historic horror past. Renfield is also in that bloody vein, designed very much as a one-off but if there’s enough interest in this film it could branch out into something more. That’s certainly the impression from the early scenes, which briefly but vividly recreates the 1931 Dracula with Nicolas Cage stepping into Lugosi’s cape and then proceeding to give his own unique, comic spin on the character. It’s the right kind of casting for the film, given its horror-comedy and buddy comedy mash-up leanings. Cage is by turns scary, theatrical and whimsical – listen to how he extends the word ‘husk’ as if trying the word on for size. It’s as if he’s playing his onscreen persona of Nic Cage (from The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent) as Elvis Presley as Dracula which makes this portrayal very much his own – and it’s a hoot to boot.
Of course, this is still Renfield’s story and the other Nicholas (Hoult) is a worthy foil to Cage, who stayed very much in character in between takes. Portraying Renfield with the same sad sympathy of his lovesick zombie from Warm Bodies, Hoult harnesses his character’s inner strength and taste for insects to spur him on to fight back and draw a bloody line on the ground with his boss. It’s not quite a superhero movie, but director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) leans into that aspect of Renfield’s powers which makes him easier to resist Dracula’s influence. There’s also a rather touching, tentative romance with no-nonsense cop Rebecca who humours Renfield’s tendencies to rip arms off bad guys like wings off flies and then proceed to beat them with those same dismembered arms. It’s that kind of film which requires you not to take it seriously at all and just laugh along with its over-the-top silliness.
Less successful is the shoe-horned-in sub-plot involving a crime boss and her son, the latter a potential rival to Renfield’s own position in life. Dracula mulls a potential alliance with the crime world, but the two elements never really gel together successfully. There’s enough plot here between Renfield, Rebecca and Dracula to power the film through without the need to parachute in another but less-effective baddie. Dracula is enough for everyone here – a shame there isn’t more signature Cage rage as a result. However, it’s a fault that can be slightly overlooked in light of the general good humour and spirit of the film which is entertaining throughout and proves that there’s no role beyond Cage’s reach. One has to wonder what he would have made of Superman…
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
A hoot to boot
Renfield (USA / 16 / 93 mins)
In short: A hoot to boot
Directed by Chris McKay.
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Shohreh Aghdashloo.