To put it bluntly, Renfield isn’t a game-changer, nor is it earth-shattering, but it’s fun enough to warrant a quick stop at your local movie theater. It’s a setup we’ve seen in countless comedies and action films before, where one member of a toxic relationship tries their best to get out of it. But to put it into the context of the Dracula/Renfield pairing? It’s a nice, fiendish twist on the usual, abetted by punchy writing, a quick pace, and a scene-chewing (literally) performance by none other than Nicolas Cage.
We’ve seen Cage as a vampire before, played with his usual magnetic, over-the-top brio, but not like this. At all. Here, as Dracula, he oozes a guttural oiliness that goes well beyond even the most out-there of his characters (Deadfall included). As his post-sunlight burn recovery goes on, the unnerving presence Cage lends him is exacerbated with gruesome makeup effects by Christian Tinsley, who takes Dracula from charred to having the kind of skin extreme burn victims hide with bandages. Half the film’s fun is watching Cage tear the screen up with his seething, Grand Guignol-esque performance, and – well, what can you say? He’s Nicolas F**kin’ CAGE, and your enjoyment of this movie will depend on whether or not you dig what he does. He never gives less than 100% to his roles, and he has a wonderful time digging in with both heels to wrangle us into submission.
Counter to his shenanigans, Nicholas Hoult plays Renfield as a timid young man (who’s really, like, pushing 100 or more) who’s had enough of being Dracula’s butt-monkey, as he’s come to realize while cruising for victims at the DRAAG scene – that’s a Destructive Relationship Addicts Anonymous Group – at a local church meeting hall. Only he’s not looking for victims at these meetings; he’s looking for their POS partners who’ve caused damage similar to that inflicted by Dracula upon Renfield. But he turns from a lurker scoping out his master’s food to a man actively participating in the group’s sharing sessions after saving Officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) from being killed by the screwup son of local mob boss Ella Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
As scripted by Ryan Ridley and directed to frantic levels of comedic anxiety by Chris McKay, Hoult’s Renfield comes off as a delicate flower who’s occasionally given the opportunity to turn into a Venus Flytrap. The scenes of him free of Dracula, however temporarily, contrast this film’s dark and gory purpose. Not even he is immune to injury – at one point, someone performs hara-kiri on him and his innards protrude – and these scenes of violence are so antithetical to the real, gentle person that Renfield is. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny; you can’t go wrong with suddenly-ripped-off arms being used as bludgeons.
And Rebecca’s not without her baggage, either, having become a cop after the murder of her incorruptible policeman father. She’s been trying to take down the powerful Lobos (who are responsible for her being fatherless) but there are too many of her fellow police officers on the Lobo family payroll. Renfield’s finally put the Lobos within reach of the law, so it’s no stretch that the people who have them in their respective grips – Dracula and the police for Renfield, the Lobos and the corrupt faction of the New Orleans Police Department – decide to crush them.
This film lies more in the action-comedy section rather than being a comedic horror film because there aren’t any genuine scares or typical horror tropes in it. The use of Bram Stoker’s characters does not a horror film make; this one moves and sounds like a buddy-cop action film, complete with one-liners tossed off as corpses are freshly made. McKay’s direction doesn’t allow time for horror; we’re thrown straightaway into the New Orleans night to watch Renfield take on drug gangs and mobsters with deft fighting skills. Car chases, shootouts, hand-to-hand combat, beheadings, eviscerations, dismemberments – it’s all done at action movie speeds and shot with matching intensity by Mitchell Amundsen.
It’s a cool-looking quick shot of nifty fun, buoyed by solid handling and the three lead performances keeping the film personable and likable. Awkwafina chucks her own brand of comedy in for good measure, using her loud, annoyed persona to rankle her scene partners – especially Nicholas Hoult, who gives Renfield a shy and desperate stammer that kicks up when Rebecca’s turned up to eleven. Of course, Nicolas Cage is game as ever, playing his version of Dracula – right down to the “I never drink… wine” chestnut – with equal parts vigor and insanity. Renfield hits just the right combination of outlandish, zany, harrowing, and madcap to keep us entertained and cheering for Renfield and Rebecca’s shot at happiness and the blood-drenched, entrail-strewn path it takes to get there.
(Love to Rosie T., the best dog ever. I’m going to miss you, buddy.)