2023, R, 93 mins.
Nicholas Hoult as R.M. Renfield / Nicolas Cage as Count Dracula / Awkwafina as Rebecca Quincy / Ben Schwartz as Tedward 'Teddy' Lobo / Adrian Martinez as Chris Marcos / Jenna Kanell as Carol / Shohreh Aghdashloo as Ella
Directed by Chris McKay / Written by Ryan Ridley, from a story by Robert Kirkland
I'm quite positive that - for fans of Nicholas Cage's most gonzo performances - that the new horror-comedy RENFIELD had them with one simple proposition:
Nic Cage...plays Count Dracula.
Consider me sold.
But...wait a tick...didn't the actor play a member of the undead before way, way back in 1988's extremely kooky, but deliriously entertaining VAMPIRE'S KISS?
Well, yes, but this time - several decades later - the Oscar-winner is playing the mother of all blood-suckers in Dracula himself, which should be enough to warrant getting butts into cinema seats. Compellingly, though, this film is not solely about the Count, but rather his underline - or "familiar" - in Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), who has had it up to here with all of his master's toxic levels of control over him for a hundred-plus years. In fact, Renfield is so tired of being this creature's man-servant that he decides to go to a local support group in a church basement for people that have had to endure emotionally damaging relationships.
If this premise for RENFIELD sounds - ahem! - bat-shit crazy and silly, then you're not alone, but director Chris McKay is no stranger to handling absurd takes on iconic characters (see his THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE) and fully embraces his film's juicy spin on Bram Stoker's mythology. RENFIELD does get a little too busy when it comes to distracting subplots and perhaps has too many characters vying for attention at times, but as a highly unique and modern-day twisting of Dracula and his familiar's relationship, RENFIELD is quite clever and, when it counts, riotously funny.
Before Renfield was in his union with the Count, he was a lawyer that was sent to meet with him to settle estate affairs. In one of the film's most ambitiously cool sequences, the opening features a flashback that has Cage and Hoult digitally inserted into old black and white footage of Tod Browning's 1931 DRACULA, and Cage makes a very strong case for being a more than passable imitator of Bela Lugosi (hell, he even gets to dryly belt out his classic line, "I never drink...wine"). Through voiceover and this pretty sensational footage, Renfield reveals that he ended up signing over his soul to Dracula while also signing those legal papers, leading to him being a servant to him for all time. Over the next several decades, he's been forced against his will to facilitate any of his master's desires, which usually amounts to delivering bodies for him to drink from. Again, most of this is basic common knowledge for those with an even basic understanding of the Dracula mythos, but when RENFIELD jumps forward to contemporary times, McKay (with a story coming from THE WALKING DEAD creator Alex Kirkman, BTW) starts to do interesting things to subvert this ageless material.
Firstly, it appears that Dracula was nearly left for dead during one particularly gruesome battle, leaving him reduced to a flame broiled corpse that will take quite some time to regenerate. He needs bodies and blood...lots of blood...to get back to his normal undead form. Renfield doesn't have the Count's abilities, but he does have his share of powers (namely super human speed, agility, and strength when he munches down on any type of bug, which requires him to have a stash in his pocket at all times...yuck!). Renfield secures his vulnerable master away at an abandoned New Orleans hospital, and while that's occurring, he starts to become jaded by all of the incessant demands that are placed upon him. At his wit's end, Renfield ends up at that aforementioned support group that helps people in toxic relationships. With the newfound aid and friendship given by those in attendance, Renfield decides to do the impossible - he abandons Dracula, swears off of ever helping him again, goes through a massive image makeover, and even gets his own studio apartment to start over. Unfortunately for Renfield, his past exploits put him on notice with a local mob boss, Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and her hot-headed son, Tedward (Ben Shapiro). Also getting involved is a local New Orleans cop, Rebecca (Awkwafina), who ends up befriending Renfield. Complicating matters immensely is that an extremely angry Dracula - incensed over his familiar's attempts to go straight - has gotten back to near full health and decides to get in bed with the mob boss.
The concept of Renfield trying to completely divorce himself from Dracula via the support group's therapy sessions and many self-help books that they recommend to him is an endlessly amusing one. It's especially funny, seeing as no one in his group - even its leader - has any clue that the man that Renfield is trying to get away from is the Prince of Darkness himself. The epiphany than Renfield has is that he actually enjoys saving people, not killing them and then serving them up on a platter for his master to consume. He's dead tired of trying to placate Dracula's demands of dry cleaning his cape (it can't be washed via normal means) or getting him some nuns or a bus full of cheerleaders (a literal actual demand from him at one point) and opts to lead his own life. Some of the sequences involving Renfield's rehabilitation are hysterical, like when he changes out of his centuries-old garb and into bright pastels that make him look like a GAP model. Of course, the world-dominating and blood-lusting psycho that is Dracula won't stand for this, so he makes an impromptu visit to Renfield's apartment (in one of the film's best sight gags, he's able to come in because Renfield put a matt by his front door that states "Welcome, Come In", which inadvertently screws him). Equally side-splitting is when Renfield takes one of his self-help books off the shelf and reads passages out of it to rationalize to Dracula why he's an abusive narcissist. The Count pitifully deadpans, "I'm the real victim here." Yeah, that's a tough sell for him.
Hoult has become a stronger performer with each new role, and his tongue-firmly-in-cheek work here as Renfield reminded me of how well he played a love-struck zombie in the terribly underrated horror-comedy WARM BODIES. The actor knows what a limitlessly preposterous film he's in here, but he wisely plays the role mostly straight and allows for his co-star in Cage to do most of the riotous scenery chewing. And, yes, rather reliably, Cage is an infectious hoot here playing Dracula in classic over-the-top villain mode (you know...the type of villain that feels righteous in his actions). Playing this beast with an unquenchable thirst for blood and a hatred for mortals easily plays into Cage's bonkers performance wheelhouse, and the actor manages to make Dracula both a chilling villain and an outrageous flamboyant egomaniac. Oh, yeah, he smugly asserts that he's a being of modest requirements. "Y’know, I don’t ask for much, Renfield. Only a couple dozen innocent people." Renfield pleads with him, "I deserve love. I deserve happiness." Yeah, that's a tough sell for him.
McKay deserves credit for being a more than competent ringmaster for this film's brand of farcical laughs and shockingly unrelenting violence. RENFIELD utterly owns up to its R-rating (which is refreshing, seeing as so many films of its ilk try to hard sell hard material with a limp PG-13 rating), especially when it comes to many of the large scale brawls that the insect-chewing Renfield engages in throughout. Once embedded with his supernatural powers, Renfield can lay waste to, for example, squads of marauding goons with relative ease, and this film is completely unafraid to show its characters punching, kicking, slashing and ripping holes in people with artery spewing glee. The violence in RENFIELD is insanely gory at times, but the whole endeavor is ultimately cheeky and cartoonish, so when arms, legs, heads and faces get ripped off, it's both horrifying and perversely funny. The wanton levels of destruction in this film is pretty extraordinary to witness, but at least the actors - and the writing - understand what kind of film they're in. "Did I watch you cut a guy’s arms off with a decorative serving platter?" a dismayed Rebecca asks of Renfield at one point. I think she's also speaking on behalf of the audience.
Speaking of Officer Rebecca, I really like Awkwafina as a comedic performer and here she often - as just alluded to - serves as a viewer's conduit into the outlandish chaos that befalls this film. Her subplot, though, revolving around her father dying on the job and her honor and duty-bound nature to get to the truth really bogs the story down here. What should have been a laser sharp focus on this modern vampire story instead gets distracted by these unnecessary police procedural elements, which blends into the other aspect of RENFIELD that's weak: it's other villains. Aghdashloo is a sensational actress, but her role as a ruthlessly mob boss is terribly underwritten and beneath her talents. She's not aided by Shapiro's frequently irritating turn as her itchy-trigger-fingered son. Why does a film about the power dynamics between Dracula and Renfield even need drug cartel baddies thrown in? What ultimate purpose doe they serve...at all? For a film that's just a hair over 90 minutes, every time RENFIELD segued into these crooks or Rebecca's investigations it just ground to a halt.