This original new take on Dracula devolves into a generic action-comedy
Dracula has been done to death (pardon the pun) on screen, with so many iterations and variations on the concept that it’s hard to keep up. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying to find ever new angles to exploit the property, the newest being Renfield (2023).
Renfield follows the eponymous character of Robert Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) the lifelong servant of Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage), who finds his victims and disposes of corpses. We find Renfield and Dracula in modern day New Orleans, where a tangle between the local mob and an ambitious police officer (Awkwafina) will force Renfield to question his life choices.
The character of Renfield was only depicted within the insane asylum in Bram Stoker’s novel, serving more as a plot device than anything else. However, director Chris McKay and screenwriter Ryan Ridley twist this scant writing to humorous effect. Essentially, Renfield asks the question: what if our eponymous character discovered he was in a co-dependent relationship with his boss? This is played for laughs in a Co-Dependents Anonymous meeting, but unfortunately is left as a side-element for the rest of Renfield.
As it was undoubtedly necessary to get funding, Renfield seems to be palely imitating a superhero movie. Renfield is given “powers” when he eats bugs, and much of the film involves him saving innocent victims with long and bloody action sequences. As such, Renfield turns into more of an action-comedy than the horror some fans expected. As such, the narrative beats mirror those of Venom (2018) more than Zombieland (2009), leading to a staleness in Renfield’s story. Likewise, the characters aren’t drawn up to be more than genre clichés, the uncorruptible cop, the reluctant hero, etc. Renfield also has some surprising wonky editing, with sloppy transitions between scenes that blatantly use ADR to narrate what had occurred in between; this gave the sense of missing or un-shot footage that the filmmakers only realized once they were in the editing bay.
Chris McKay has been flitting between genres for a while, starting with the winning The LEGO Batman Movie (2017), and moving into blockbuster action with The Tomorrow War (2021), only to shift to dark comedy with Renfield. I admire a versatile director, but McKay’s frequent switches unfortunately have resulted in indecisive tone within his films. McKay crafts some winning action, however, delivering creative, gory kills and staging comprehensive choreography within his fight sequences.
The main draw in Renfield, however, is seeing Nicolas Cage inhabit one of his most sought-after roles. Cage doesn’t disappoint, delivering a high-octane performance that sees him relish each line he delivers. Cage enlivens each scene he’s in, drawing every eyeball onto him as his take on Dracula flits between the stiffness of Bela Lugosi and the malice of Christopher Lee. Hoult in the leading role, meanwhile, is solid enough though unfortunately limited by the bland heroic arc. This is a missed opportunity to show the complex villainy he’s clearly capable of, for those who saw his work on The Great (2020-).
In the end, Renfield delivers effectively on the scant material of its source, but unfortunately devolves into a super-hero wannabe. The gory action can prove entertaining, and Cage’s Dracula is a blast to behold. Sadly, the remaining bland story and dry characters can’t elevate Renfield from a middle-of-the-road action comedy.