Count Dracula’s faithful familiar, Renfield, seeks a normal life away from the confines of bloody, murderous servitude to his narcissistic vampire master. Therein lies the intriguing and original premise of Universal’s “Renfield,” a blend of over-the-top horror, action and dark humor. Directed by Chris McKay and written by Ryan Ridley based on an original idea by Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”). The film stars Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage and Awkwafina.
In present day New Orleans, Robert Montague Renfield (Hoult) meets Officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a tough-as-nails cop taking on city corruption and the untouchable Lobo crime family led by Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ben Schwartz. Officer Quincy’s bravery convinces Renfield to break from his co-dependent relationship with his undead employer. With the aid of a support group, positive affirmations, a makeover and self-help books, Renfield is on his way to reclaiming his personal power and independence. Surely, Dracula will understand. What could go wrong?
Those familiar with Bram Stoker’s 1897 “Dracula” novel and the film adaptations will recognize the Renfield character. Prior notable portrayals include Dwight Frye in the 1931 Universal “Dracula” film, Arte Johnson’s scene-stealing comedic turn in 1979’s “Love at First Bite” and the intense Tom Waits in 1992’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” It is the 1931 version that “Renfield” lovingly honors in early moments of what appears to be deepfake sorcery. More of that would have been fun to see just for the black and white novelty of it.
The versatile actor Hoult is no stranger to genre material after turns in “Warm Bodies,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and 2022’s “The Menu.” His performance brings to mind a young Hugh Grant in a “John Wick” movie. This Renfield is a bit more refined and rehabilitated than viewers are used to, but the bug eating is there. Awkwafina gives a straightforward performance. She is bold, no-nonsense and resourceful in the action set pieces. Brandon Scott Jones is a standout as Mark the support group counselor, getting laughs for his sincerity. Horror fans can also spot actors Caroline Williams (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”), William Ragsdale (“Fright Night” & “Fright Night Part 2”) and Jenna Kanell (“Terrifier”) in appearances.
The main draw, of course, is Nicolas Cage as the famed Dracula and he does not disappoint. His performance is imbued with the spirit of Lugosi crossed with the slightly unhinged self-awareness audiences have come to expect from him. Cage’s Dracula is manipulative, passive-aggressive and hilarious. He can also be quite menacing and powerful when he wants to be, but he is fun to watch and seems to be having a great time.
“Renfield” feels like a big screen graphic novel. Comedic gore, weaponized limbs and piles of dead bodies all played for laughs will surely make this one a crowd-pleaser. The film earns its R-rating and will have folks giggling and gagging at the same time. The film moves fast and is directed well by McKay, particularly towards the energetic climax. Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen brings some of his “Wanted” visual tricks to the vampire attacks and fight sequences. No post-credits sequence presented. However, the visuals behind the credits provide a glimpse of what appear to be deleted moments and possibly a lively song and dance number. We’ll have to wait for those special features presumably.
- Brian W. Smith - RENFIELD