If ever there was a role Nicolas Cage was going to sink his teeth into, it’s that of Dracula. And the eccentric character actor is undoubtedly Renfield‘s biggest asset, but, despite top billing, this isn’t the Count’s movie – though it’s not for a lack of trying.
The titular Renfield is R.M. Renfield (the film’s other Nic, Nicholas Hoult), Dracula’s infamous familiar, who is called upon to do his master’s bloody bidding. A relationship that was born from an initial seduction and promise of a life spoiled immortal, their dom-sub dynamic is no longer working for Renfield and, in a running joke, has sought out therapy as a means to work towards breaking free from the toxic hold of his master.
Written by Ryan Ridley (TV’s Community), from a story by Robert Kirkman (TV’s The Walking Dead), Renfield already has enough going for it as a humorous take on a “relationship” comedy between Cage and Hoult – very amusingly introduced in a manner that inserts both actors into the black-and-white footage of the 1931 picture Dracula that starred Bela Lugosi as the titular vamp – that it doesn’t really need too much else to fill its brisk 93 minute running time. Of course, for a film that leans into bloody horror just as much as camp comedy, it makes sense that there be a few more gory ingredients on the table, and director Chris McKay (The Tomorrow War) indulges in the extreme and the obscene when necessary; one sequence set within an apartment block sees Renfield literally rip a man limb from limb, before mercilessly beating him to death with aforementioned severed limbs.
Just why Renfield is performing such bloody acts – something he actively tries to avoid over the course of the film, because, you know, he wants to be “good” – revolves around the smarmy Tedward Lobo (Ben Schwartz, having a ball of a time), a drug dealer whose mother (Shoreh Agdashloo) is a fearsome crime matriarch of sorts, who wants to feed on the power Dracula can provide. And seeing as how Renfield is perceived as being more and more ungrateful as the days go on, Dracula figures taking matters into his own teeth and creating a more powerful underling is the rightful course of action.
Though the film incorporating such a narrative arc allows the effects team on hand to indulge in gallons (and gallons) of blood – as well as lending Awkwafina a likeable, oft-hilarious turn as Rebecca, a cop who becomes unwillingly involved in the bloody trail being left by Dracula, Renfield and the Lobo’s – it also means Renfield is a little unsure of what tone it wants to commit to. Cage and Hoult are so wonderful together that more of them could have truly benefitted Renfield as a whole – seeing their 100-year-dynamic played out in relative depth may have provided a healthy comedic elevation – and whilst Schwartz and Awkwafina are both suitably amusing, their sequences oft feel like they belong in another film entirely; that being said, it’s still a film of immense entertainment value.
More successful as a comedy over being anything remotely horrific, Renfield may not always utilise Cage in the manner both he and we as an audience deserve, but the film certainly doesn’t suck – as far as vampiric puns go. The balance isn’t always quite stable between the goriness and the goofiness, but it’s an original enough of a spin to warrant an evening with the undead.
Renfield is now screening in Australian theatres.
*This review originally appeared on The AU Review. It has been re-published with the author’s permission.