‘Renfield’ is fun when Nicolas Cage is on screen as Dracula, not so much when he’s off

Pity the underling—notably Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the long-suffering lackey after whom this silly monster-mash movie gets its name. His tortured master-servant dynamic happens to be with a real bloodsucker. Literally. Pause for faint laughs, since his boss is Count Dracula. Pause for even bigger laughs, since Dracula is Nic Cage.

The sketch-comedy hook is that Dracula’s put-upon “familiar,” Bram Stoker’s insane insect-chomper famously in thrall to the vaunted vampire, seeks succor from a support group for co-dependents stuck in no-exit relationships. “You and I forever until the end of time,” Dracula crows at him, relishing and taunting in equal measure. The Prince of Darkness is the ultimate gaslighting bully, a malignant egomaniac who dominates Renfield with a silver tongue and supernatural aplomb. But this film’s garlic necklace is a self-help book called How to Defend Yourself Against a Narcissist.

RENFIELD ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Chris McKay
Written by: Ryan Ridley
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Running time: 94 min

The charm of Renfield is its giddy self-awareness as comic pulp, a paper-thin premise delivered with a few clever chuckles and a detrimental dollop of grisly guffaws—especially during pumped-up fight scenes of superhuman strength. Talk about grisly, by the way: in this movie, people are like human piñatas that explode into showers of slimy viscera. The story leans into shock value as a comic crutch, presenting the grotesque with glee.

Which is a shame, considering that most of the film’s joy comes from watching the intensely committed, extra-thick slice of thespian ham that is Nic Cage. Is that an eyeball-garnished martini in his hand? The Oscar-winning eccentric clearly relishes his role, bringing his trademark baroque “woo!” flourishes to this version of the fanged immortal. Every line, slathered in sarcasm, comes with side-eye ennui and a voice best described as mid-Atlantic rasp vacillating between regional-theater Brit bark and cowabunga-dude SoCal drawls. What a vamp!

A delicious 1930s-era black-and-white preface details Renfield’s enslavement to Cage, reimagined with CGI wizardry as a Bela-Lugosi-era Creature of the Night. Dracula tends to go through boom-and-bust cycles of existence, Renfield explains, where a blood-fueled bender climaxes in the forces of Good tamping down his rampant Evil—usually with an immolating exposure to daylight—that neutralizes the unkillable demon into an ashy heap. Convalescence follows, in what Renfield calls a “transitional period,” where they both lie low while he slowly nurses his boss back to eventual full strength.

All Dracula needs to revivify is a bevy of victims, the purer the better. A busload of cheerleaders, say, or a gaggle of nuns. And Renfield has to secure them—a tall order when the deaths of innocents weigh heavy on his damned soul. His workaround is to choose crooks and drug dealers instead, which means morally tainted plasma, a slower healing process, and a grumpier Dracula, who appears in various disgusting states of fleshy regeneration.

The film takes place in New Orleans, a bold location considering the long shadow of Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat, although it feels like it was chosen more for production tax breaks than for thematic integrity. It’s there where Renfield crosses paths with the Lobo crime family, specifically bratty scion Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), whose messy shenanigans and brazen disregard for the law bring him into conflict with traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). Her dad died at the hands of the Lobo clan, so she’s got justice on her mind even though the Lobos have all the corrupt police and politicians in their back pocket.

Rebecca’s got backbone, and Renfield is in awe. Her integrity inspires him to stand up for himself, and together they face off against not only the Lobos but also a full-strength Dracula. Self-affirmation posters and kung-fu-inflected melees ensue.

Are Renfield and Rebecca supposed to have chemistry? The movie never really makes that clear, neutralizing a possible love connection that could have made the film, if not more compelling, then a bit more endearing. Awkwafina is naturally funny, but her role requires a straight-laced sincerity that doesn’t play to her strengths. Besides, the real relationship drama is between Dracula and Renfield, the delightfully dead-eyed Cage and the dourly doe-eyed Hoult. Yes, Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows has already mined this type of toxic bromance for ghoulish laughs, but Renfield emphasizes the adversarial over the situational in a more biting way. Pity the action-hero set pieces, underworld-gang subplot, and flaccid non-romance drain the color out of his otherwise ruddy romp.


Nicolas Cage as Dracula makes life hard for Nicolas Hoult as Renfield.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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