One of the most recognizable movie monsters of all time is the blood-sucking Dracula. From the dawn of cinema with Nosferatu to the Hotel Transylvania series, we’ve seen hundreds of iterations. It’s no surprise why we keep coming back to an easily recognizable character when the appeal has never lost its bite. For those who know Bram Stoker’s original novel, the vital counterbalance to Count Dracula is his “familiar” and loyal servant, Renfield. Who fetches the victims for Dracula to feast on and does his every bidding? In Universal’s latest horror comedy Renfield, Nicolas Hoult of X-Men franchise and Mad Max: Fury Road fame is the titular tortured aide. And who better to play the most horrible boss in fiction than Nicolas Cage himself?
The two Nics definitely make for a hilarious pairing. Behind the scenes, we have director Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie, The Tomorrow War) and writer Ryan Ridley (Rick & Morty), whose script is based on an idea by The Walking Dead and Invincible creator Robert Kirkman. This impressive creative group births an inspired, fun mix of gory horror and humor that’s sure to stand out from anything audiences will see from a major studio this year. Renfield undeniably has so much going in its favor – two great movie stars, exciting filmmakers, and a great dedication to campiness. However, a trope-filled story is where this promising genre flick starts to lose its charm.
Set in New Orleans (a nod to prolific author Anne Rice), we begin with Robert Montague Renfield recounting his illustrious past with his “boss” at a co-dependent relationship support group. The nature of their relationship (established some 900 years ago) is revealed to the group in as broad strokes as possible. Included is a stellar black-and-white nod to Bela Lugosi’s iconic turn as Dracula and Nicolas Cage chewing up every line in his vampy best. Renfield then returns home to his insatiable master, who on the brink of death is both hilarious and menacing due to Cage’s natural charisma.
In a chance encounter, Renfield picking up dinner for the boss at a bar meets Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who’s a traffic cop looking for answers. After being put in jail for the day, failing mobster Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz) of the local crime family seeks revenge against Rebecca. All these roads lead to Renfield just trying to do his best at evading his master and creating a new free life for himself. With the help of Rebecca, all that seems possible for the first time in centuries. While the genre-bending aspect of Renfield works incredibly well, mixing old-school horror camp with a modern sense of humor, other specific narrative tropes are far too dated for today’s audiences.
For instance, Awkwafina’s Rebecca is the one good cop in her entire precinct who isn’t working with the Lobo mob family. Renfield, for some odd reason, plays heavily into the whole “not all cops are bad” archetype. A hint of romance between Renfield and Rebecca even starts to develop, with the cop also being praised as “heroic” by Dracula’s titular servant. This simply does not fit in and feels jarring compared to the rest of the gore – which there’s a lot of! At one point Renfield pulls someone’s arms off and throws them into the chest of another guy since, you know, being Dracula’s familiar comes with the power of increased strength. It’s perhaps the biggest deviation from Dracula’s lore. Body dismemberment galore, the visual and practical effects often look fake but that’s the point. To say the least, Renfield takes you to a whole other level of camp.
Despite the high levels of camp, there’s a nice balance of action and comedy in Renfield. This juggling act mostly works, thanks to the hilarious cast. All the members of Renfield’s support group bring their own witty schtick. Ben Schwartz is an easy standout along with his striking crime boss mom Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Again, the crime family plot isn’t the most exciting part of the movie and seems outdated when compared to the other modern elements. What’s fun about their weird mother-son dynamic is that they riff off each other and the ridiculousness going on around them. They too encounter Dracula, but instead of shunning the prince of darkness, they welcome him into their family. This is a universe where Dracula walks among them and some don’t even bat an eyelash.
It’s a horror lover’s greatest treat seeing Nicolas Cage go beyond the macabre for Dracula. He goes through a major transformation throughout Renfield with wild prosthetics and teeth, yet Cage is a pro at shining underneath all the cloaks and make-up. Each time he’s on-screen, his larger-than-life persona is infused with such power that we haven’t seen from the character before. It’s a refreshing take, that even the biggest vampire fanatics will find a lot to love in. Renfield, though, in no way would work if it wasn’t for Nicholas Hoult at the heart of the story.
Renfiled is not a great person, however, being stuck with Dracula all those centuries, you can’t help but feel bad for him. Looking at a paleface Hoult yet again, it gives off the same vibes as his character R in the criminally underrated Warm Bodies. That’s until he opens his mouth and shares his constantly abusive relationship. Speaking of such, the film provides an unexpectedly genuine commentary on codependency. Renfield’s eyes are opened at the support group meetings throughout the film and he does all he can to try to live a life free of servitude.
At points, it’s hard to believe that this film even got the green light. Chris McKay brings the same self-deprecating humor of The LEGO Batman Movie, and even though not all the jokes land, when they do, it’s off the charts. All the familiar vampire lore is dialed up to 100. Visually, there’s a lot to enjoy in Renfield thanks to cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen as well. The practical effects are pulled off excellently and are used a lot with Cage specifically. The action is also where the most fun is had, as Renfield gets to rip apart waves of mobsters. There’s a great face-off between Renfield and Dracula that’s worth the trip to a theater alone.
In the end, regardless of some huge setbacks in the story, Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult bring fresh blood to the table and make for a damn good time in Renfield. Maybe this movie will finally usher in a new era for the Universal Monsters, as it’s certainly more memorable and unique than the notorious failure of the Dark Universe. Above all else, following his turn in recent films like the critically acclaimed Pig and the cult favorite comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage proves that he’s got plenty more to give us.