The abject failure of Universal Pictures’ “Dark Universe” concept continues to gift us little wins with movies like The Invisible Man (2020) and now Chris McKay’s Renfield. Instead of a lurching shared universe more concerned with intertwining Dracula’s origins with Frankenstein’s, or having The Phantom of the Opera form an alliance with The Mummy or some poppycock, the cinematic titan wisely prioritized films that took iconic horror characters and reinvigorated them with ambitious new storytelling angles.
Renfield isn’t quite at the level of Leigh Whannell’s brilliant subversion of the 1933 Hammer Horror picture three years ago, but it’s more than likely better than whatever The Mummy-esque disaster we would’ve gotten in its place had more people flocked to see the Tom Cruise vehicle in 2017. It’s a spirited dose of the supernatural, inviting grotesque body horror and light-hearted comedy into a story about the perils of codependency. A trio of effective performances also helps iron out its rougher edges.
McKay’s film — working off a screenplay by Ryan Ridley — revolves around Robert Montagu Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the long-suffering servant of Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage), who has finally taken the first steps in recognizing the problem he has as a codependent familiar of the vampire. Renfield attends a support group for adults in toxic relationships, which starts working its magic just in time for him to get caught in the middle of a battle between a New Orleans crime family and a traffic cop named Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). Despite the ensuing calamity — and sheer amount of bloodshed — this circumstance serves as the perfect opportunity for Renfield to finally stand up to his creator.
Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen (Premium Rush) establishes his faithfulness to the 1931 classic early on, at least in a visual sense. The film’s prologue is conducted in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and resembles the granddaddy of horror classics in style and presentation. Nicholas Hoult is a terrific Renfield, at times bearing an uncanny resemblance to Dwight Frye, the original Renfield who starred alongside Bela Lugosi. Hoult does well in modernizing Renfield for an audience who now knows Dracula’s behavior as acts of gaslighting and unchecked narcissism, which gives added purpose to Ridley’s screenplay as more than just another romp with familiar horror characters.
Predictably, Nicolas Cage is back to being completely unhinged. Something about vampires brings out the veteran actor and cherished meme’s maniacal tendencies — see Vampire’s Kiss if you haven’t — and Renfield hits its strides as a comedy when both Hoult and Cage share the screen. The most notable scene between the two involves Dracula surprising Renfield in his studio apartment and backing him into a corner while the poor servant tries to use his newfound techniques to stop his master. Sadly, the two don’t share more than maybe three significant scenes together; a major missed opportunity as the film crackles with intensity when the pair are at odds.
Awkwafina is given a meatier-than-usual role as a DUI cop tired of working the streets and hungering for policework that would honor her late father, who was killed by a violent mob enforcer (Ben Schwartz). Where Hoult’s Renfield is more submissive and timid, and Cage’s Dracula is a loose cannon, Awkwafina’s Rebecca is aggressive and spontaneous, and she earns most of the film’s effective one-liners.
I suppose Renfield‘s largest handicap is there isn’t enough meat on this bone in terms of plot. Paradoxically, the themes it handles are substantive, but the crime drama narrative it evokes feels perfunctory. The bevy of henchmen are merely dead men walking, for they will soon meet their fates after Renfield eats various critters and develops super-strength to the point where he can rip their limbs off with his bare-hands. During a month when we have another Evil Dead movie hitting theaters, Renfield still might edge that film in the blood and gore department.
Narrative flimsiness aside, Renfield is another example of a competently executed retelling of a familiar story. It takes characters we’ve known practically since birth, but positions them in a new light without mistaking empty buzzwords for modernization. When the script itself struggles to fill time, Hoult, Cage, and Awkwafina at least fill it with purpose and conviction.
NOTE: Renfield is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Directed by: Chris McKay.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!