There are a handful of moments sprinkled throughout director Chris McKay’s Renfield that are so inspired and ridiculous (in a good way) that you can kind of understand why Universal greenlit the project even though it’s had a tough go of making monster movies in recent years. But while Nicolas Cage’s turn as the prince of vampires is intermittently delightful and deranged (again, in a good way), the rest of Renfield is so slipshod, derivative, and juvenile that it’s almost a wonder to see on the big screen, mess that it is.
Loosely based on characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Renfield is a comedic dive into the life and times of one Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the simpering, lantern-jawed, perpetually terrified manservant bound to the Dracula (Cage). Renfield doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the specifics of how Dracula, a sadistic demon, first ensnared Renfield, a lawyer, and convinced him that he’d be granted immortality in exchange for doing the vampire’s bidding. But as the film cold opens on the pair in a particularly harrowing moment from their past, Renfield’s already long since started wondering what life might be like if he weren’t constantly under his undead master’s otherworldly thrall.
After decades of waiting on Dracula hand and foot and having to settle for temporary, vampire-like powers derived from eating insects, Renfield finds himself suddenly struck by his conscience and the sneaking suspicion that his boss might be something of a narcissist. No matter how hard Renfield tries to will himself free from Dracula, though, it’s only a matter of time before he comes crawling back ready to serve again — even when he’s presented with very viable opportunities to break free, like when a group of hunters nearly manage to destroy him in one of the movie’s early scenes.
From almost the moment Renfield begins narrating Renfield, it’s immediately apparent that screenwriter Ryan Ridley’s script — based on a story from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman — doesn’t really trust you to be able to understand its most basic plot elements, and it’s a feeling that only intensifies as the movie progresses. Not only does Renfield tell you directly that he’s sick and tired of Dracula ripping his guts in moments of rage but it’s also an idea the movie reinforces repeatedly as it follows the duo to New Orleans after the vampire is badly injured in a fight that leaves him in need of recuperation.
As disgustingly fascinating as it is to watch Cage chew scenery as a charred, mangled shell of a vampire perpetually lit like Bela Lugosi’s 1931 take on the character, Renfield becomes deeply boring in moments when it’s focused on Renfield attending meetings with a self-help group for people in toxic relationships. None of Renfield’s fellow group attendees can understand just how literal he’s being as he describes how his “boss” is a life force-draining monster. But they can all relate to living in the shadows of manipulative, violent people, which Renfield tries to illustrate with a deluge of jokes that, at times, play like they’re making light of abusive relationships.
With all of its jokes about codependence and a vampire’s familiar struggling to become independent, it’s impossible to watch Renfield and not see a much clunkier, bloodsoaked riff on some of the same dynamics that make What We Do in the Shadows so consistently amusing. Renfield — a nervous, poorly dressed man Hoult tries to bring an awkward English charm to — is no Guillermo. But they’re similar enough that Renfield goes out of its way to differentiate itself with a needlessly busy action-thriller plot involving traffic cop Rebecca (Awkwafina) and her drug-dealing nemeses, Teddy (Ben Schwartz) and Bella-Francesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
It’s rare that you see such a strong cast almost uniformly let down by writing that does little to play to their strengths. But that’s precisely the case with Renfield, which becomes a weirdly copagandistic story about Renfield being inspired by Rebecca to take a proper stand against Dracula. This reality becomes increasingly more disappointing the more time you spend with Cage’s Dracula who, despite being framed and played rather campily, is riveting to watch, both because of Cage’s signature Caginess but also because of Renfield’s surprisingly solid action sequences involving him. Strange as it is to think of Renfield as being a notable part of the Dracula canon, its depiction of his classic powers like transforming into a cloud of bats or smoke is legitimately impressive.
It’s also somewhat strange to watch Dracula murdering people like a Mortal Kombat character, but Renfield at least tries to have fun with its over-the-top action set pieces, which makes them something akin to enjoyable. That said, the things that work about Renfield are drastically outweighed by those that don’t, and it’s a shame because it’s not hard to imagine a version of the film that could have been much better with a bit of massaging and a better grip on what makes these characters interesting.
Renfield also stars Adrian Martinez, Brandon Scott Jones, Jenna Kanell, Bess Rous, James Moses Black, Caroline Williams, and Miles Doleac. The movie is in theaters now.