Renfield is an example of a great premise turned into an okay product. A super-violent horror/comedy about Dracula’s servant, it is kind of funny, occasionally clever, has a pair of good performances and absolutely does not skimp on the gore. Yet, it consistently feels like it is missing something. Maybe it needed to be goofier? Or darker? It definitely could have used more Dracula. Whatever the case, the whole is somehow not as fun as the sum of its parts. I sort of enjoyed Renfield, even though the individual pieces tell me I should have loved it.
It is modern day and, after a couple of centuries, Renfield is getting tired of living only to supply innocents for his master’s meals. When a visit to a support group for victims of abusive relationships convinces him he deserves better, Renfield decides it is time to change his life. Dracula, of course, has other ideas.
The number one, by far, selling point of Renfield (87 minutes, without the end credits) can be summed up in four words: Nicolas Cage is Dracula. Not only is he Dracula, he plays him as a cross between the usual over-the-top Nicolas Cage character and Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula. He is dark, very evil, weird and strangely funny. In short, it is precisely what was hoped for when this casting was announced. The story being about Renfield was probably a good choice because this Dracula may have worn out his welcome if overused. He is a really entertaining antagonist, who pops in when needed, and whose presence is constantly being felt. However, the rest of the movie misses him when he is gone.
Nicholas Hoult gives the other good performance as the title character. He is both the emotional center and the straight man to all the comedy around him. He is an odd straight man, since he also has powers that allow him to punch people’s heads off (there is a lot of blood on display), but his arc is mostly sincere. He is a fitting anchor for this genre mash-up.
The main issue here is that Renfield trying to escape from Dracula’s clutches and become his own man is a perfectly fine plot. Unfortunately, that was not deemed enough by the filmmakers. The screenplay throws in a murderous crime family, a city full of corrupt cops and one officer who wants to do what is right. This is Rebecca, played by Awkwafina as a pretty typical Awkwafina character. She is awkward, charming in an offbeat way and gets some laughs just from her delivery. She felt a little out of place here (as did the generally amusing Ben Schwartz as the crime family’s screw-up son), largely because the character wasn’t necessary. She brings this big subplot with her that takes over the entire movie, when what the audience has come to see is the relationship between Renfield and Dracula.
Again, this feels like it should have been even more entertaining. Nicholas Hoult is an engaging Renfield. Nicolas Cage is wonderful as Dracula. There are a decent number of laughs. The action works due to how excessively ridiculous it is. And there are funny people dotted throughout the cast.
While I did mostly like it, I’m left wondering why it didn’t connect with me stronger. The writing is a bit unfocused and the pacing is certainly too fast at the start, then too slow in the middle section. Director Chris McKay struggles on his timing with a couple of sight gags, but does a solid enough job highlighting his actors and high-concept premise (his other live-action effort is the awful Chris Pratt vehicle The Tomorrow War, so this is clearly a step in the right direction).
Sometimes, everything seems to be there for a movie and it still doesn’t completely click. Renfield isn’t the amazingly fun, crazy comedy it could have been. It is alright. Nicolas Cage alone makes this worth a look. If this isn’t all it could have been, that is not his fault.
3¼ out of 5
Nicholas Hoult as Renfield
Nicolas Cage as Dracula
Awkwafina as Rebecca
Ben Schwartz as Tedward Lobo
Shoreh Ashdashloo as Bellafrancesca Lobo
Brandon Scott Jones as Mark
Directed by Chris McKay
Screenplay by Ryan Ridley