Renfield (2023) Review

Renfield (2023)
Director: Chris McKay
Screenwriter: Ryan Ridley
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Brandon Scott Jones, Jenna Kanell, Bess Rous, James Moses Black

Over countless film adaptations, Nicolas Cage has somehow never played the world’s most famous vampire… until now. We’re not talking a delusional executive with plastic fangs as in Vampire’s Kiss here, but a real creature of the night. A colourful and eccentric character on-screen and off, and an avid student of early horror cinema, you’d think Cage would have been salivating at the chance years ago. Now, finally, we have Renfield, a tongue-in-cheek reimagining/sequel to Bram Stoker’s original novel (and Tod Browning’s 1931 black-and-white Universal adaptation in particular) that follows Dracula’s long-suffering, spider-eating human familiar trying to escape his dark master’s clutches in contemporary New Orleans. Rest assured, whatever else the film does right or otherwise, you pay to see Cage as Dracula and you certainly get your money’s worth.

Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has been serving his master Count Dracula for almost a century, tending to his every need during daylight hours, bringing him unsuspecting victims, and becoming an abused shell of a person in the process. After the Count is left dangerously close to perma-death following a vampire hunter attack, the pair are forced to start again in a new city where Renfield begins to question his place in the world and the nature of his co-dependent relationship with a real and figurative monster.

Many critics have already drawn a neat line between Renfield and Deadpool, which is completely understandable. Both movies were made for around $60 million and have a light-hearted, self-referential and ultra-violent take on a traditionally younger-skewing movie genre, namely the monster movie and the superhero blockbuster.

A clever little gimmick in this is how they turn a character who (on the page and in previous screen interpretations) is just an ordinary mentally unstable man into a credible physical threat, explaining this by Dracula bestowing his thrall with time-limited “Dracula powers” (this is actually said aloud by one character) by ingesting flies, spiders and cockroaches usually carried around in a convenient matchbox. The lanky and dishevelled Renfield then proceeds to carve his way through an army of disposable henchmen in a series of inventive, splattery set pieces accompanied by choice needle-drops that begin with him punching a guy’s head clean off and only escalate from there to ridiculous Takashi Miike levels of gleeful violence.

The playful references to the original universal horror movies, down to painstaking recreations of iconic images from those films, will please long-time fans of the old, campy variety of scare cinema. Hoult is very much playing the submissive version of Renfield from the Todd Browning film (originally so memorably portrayed by Dwight Frye) but weighed down by a century of abuse, fortuitously meeting the most empathetic person he has encountered in decades (Awkwafina’s grieving cop Rebecca) and finally beginning his path to becoming a more content person. Yes, a key moment in his self-actualisation is signified by a makeover scene.

Nicolas Cage is pleasingly over the top with some delightfully unconventional, arrhythmic line readings and flamboyant gestures, which is hilarious when paired with the fairly straight and mannered Nicolas Hoult. He has also remained completely, irredeemably evil as all Draculas should be, revelling in the suffering he causes in order to grow into his full dark power, adding gaslighting and horrible domestic abuse to his list of mortal sins. Amusingly, Dracula is quick to retort “don’t turn this into a sex thing” when Renfield asks him whether he’d prefer female cheerleaders to feast on, but that is just what their relationship resembles: a deeply unhealthy and imbalanced romance in which one party is getting all the gratification at the expense of the other.

The film works pretty well when it’s riffing on old monster movies or leaning into the victim support group therapy angle, but it’s much less successful when it has to be a more generic crime movie.

The criminal underworld subplot gives Awkwafina’s cop her reason for being – to bring her father’s killer to justice – but we’ve seen all this before and the disparate plot elements from very different genres never quite mesh together comfortably. Fans of ‘Parks and Recreation’ already know how well Ben Schwartz plays annoying man-children, but slapping a load of tattoos on his neck doesn’t make him into a scary gangster, and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s crime family matriarch just isn’t memorable enough. Both performances pale in comparison to everyone taking part in the more vampire-adjacent portion of the story.

The group therapy scenes are also a little tonally wonky – if there’s one portion of the film that should be played completely straight as a counterpoint to the rest, it’s this aspect, and the members of the group are generally too broad or goofy to make an impact, their potentially interesting and heartfelt stories dropped in favour of the gag that Renfield’s sucky boss really does drain the lifeforce of everyone he encounters. A couple of moments here that might have had genuine impact are completely undermined shortly afterwards, perhaps in an effort to avoid too much of a downer ending.

Between this and The Lego Batman Movie, director Chris McKay seems to have a fascination with unhealthy co-dependent relationships explored through a colourful genre lens. Renfield might not do anything particularly revolutionary with the horror-comedy, but the claret-soaked action, Hoult and Awkwafina offering charisma in spades, and Cage not just tearing the throat out of the scenery, makes this worth your time.

Come for campy Count Cage, stay for Nicholas Hoult ripping people’s arms off to repurpose them as fleshy melee weapons. 

Score: 17/24

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