Thursday, April 13, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

Watch out! He bites!

Nicolas Cage plays Count Dracula in Chris McKay’s new horror-comedy, Renfield. Does that sound appealing to you? Do you have the patience and energy for that? Are you in or out? You already know the answers to these questions, and they’re not likely to change. Some would say that Cage — reliable and interesting whether audiences notice it or not — has been building to this performance for a decade, a chance to put away the muted thespian pretense that “rehabilitated” his career in recent standouts like Pig and Color Out of Space and just let that Face/Off freak flag fly. Others would argue that the actor has grown beyond that blunt, obvious mugging and should embrace more layered genre pieces like Mandy and Willy’s Wonderland, opportunities to dig a bit deeper and reclaim the critical notoriety he earned with Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation. Renfield is unlikely to sway you in either direction, but it will remind you that the Oscar-winning actor is still willing to do just about anything if you ask him nicely.
With all that said, it’s a good time to note that Renfield is, as the name suggests, actually the story of Dracula’s long-suffering servant (Nicholas Hoult), an enthralled “familiar” who cares for his dark master’s everyday needs in exchange for immortality. After their most recent relocation to downtown New Orleans, however, Renfield has found himself wondering if their relationship isn’t more than a bit unhealthy. His friends in the codependency support group certainly think so, and he listens with interest as they encourage each other to leave their manipulative partners — be they romantic or, in Renfield’s case, supernatural — and walk a more fulfilling path toward self-esteem. As our hero mulls over a fresh start, he crosses paths with Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a cop on the trail of local mafia princeling Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz). Lobo and his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo as Ella) have city authorities bought and paid for, so Rebecca enlists Renfield’s help — and superheroic powers — to bring them both down.

Written by Ryan Ridley (Rick & Morty) from a story by The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman, Renfield is sure to draw comparisons to quirky horror comedies like Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. The two share little apart from leather capes and pancake makeup, however, as Renfield eschews Shadows’ understated behavioral comedy for the brand of balls-to-the-wall action and gore you’d find in Wanted, Kingsman, or other films that have cans of Monster Energy Drink where their consciences should be. Renfield isn’t nearly as crass or mean-spirited as those violent romps, but it’s more than happy to oblige anyone who has ever wondered what it looks like when someone literally gets the shit kicked out of them (in x-ray slow motion, no less). It’s a tonal choice that dulls the film’s central metaphor — that Renfield and Dracula are sympathetic figures trapped in the codependent/narcissist dance — but McKay and his team are betting that their bloody, orgiastic delights will make up for it.
Hoult, for his part, continues the strong run of off-center loner roles he began in earnest all the way back in the X-Men franchise (He’s the unsung MVP of last year’s The Menu, by the way), and the weirdo chemistry he shares with Cage is as easy and satisfying as it should be. Trouble is, Hoult shares most of his scenes with Awkwafina, who — though undoubtedly a warm and funny screen presence — is saddled with a poorly-sketched detective plot right out of junior film college, a load of grating, paint-by-number bullshit in which every character speaks their exposition and every twist hangs conspicuously in front of our eyes like it’s waiting to be plucked from world’s most obvious tree. None of this is Awkwafina’s fault, and she acquits herself with enough energy and humor to do the heavy narrative lifting, but there’s simply no excuse for how often Renfield interrupts a fun beat between its leads so that Ben Schwartz can shout at faceless underlings who are just going to be impaled by their own limbs, anyway.
You’re wondering about Nicolas Cage, though, and it goes without saying that he makes a wonderful meal out of Dracula. He’s loud and he’s quiet, goofy and morose, frightening and hilarious with a dash of uncomfortable sexuality that gives way to some good old-fashioned body horror. He gets his Bela Lugosi on when the moment demands, and McKay shines that tell-tale eye light at just the right angle every single time. The make-up and gore effects — Dracs begins as a burnt-out husk and gradually heals as he consumes the blood of the innocent — are top-notch. Cage seems to be having the time of his life. It’s fun! It’s violent! It’s all great, in theory, but there just isn’t nearly enough creativity in Renfield to justify the time and talent of Cage or his co-stars. It’s hard not to think about the movie that might have come from a smarter writing team, one that wasn’t so reliant on repetitive gross-out gags and “Well, that happened!” humor. You’ll have fun in the moment, for sure, but you’ll forget Renfield by this time tomorrow.

Renfield hits theaters on Friday, April 14th.

1 comment:

  1. It's not a great movie, and kind of grinds to a halt whenever they get into the Awkwafina/Lobo subplot. Hoult and Cage carry the movie for me though. I've been a huge fan of Hoult's, especially after being probably my favorite part of Mad Max: Fury Road, and then more recently with The Menu, and especially his role in The Great (excited for season 3 next month).