Renfield (United States, 2023)

April 14, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Renfield Poster

The last time Nicolas Cage bared his fangs – in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss – his performance was widely criticized (and, in some circles, praised) for being outlandishly campy. Now, some 35 years later, Cage has channeled the same zany zeitgeist into portraying the Granddaddy of all vampires, Count Dracula himself. More Lee than Lugosi (at least in appearance), this version of the Lord of Death is so outrageous that it puts to shame previous attempts at parodying the Count. (Leslie Neilsen, I’m looking at you!) It’s too bad that the rest of Renfield doesn’t come close to being on the same level. Oh, there are some good ideas in there but the screenplay gets sidetracked by a lackluster subplot involving a straight-arrow cop and wallows in the title character’s angst over the horrible things he has done in a century’s servitude to the vampire.

Cage’s performance provides the glue for an uneven film. Director Chris McKay finds inspiration in the actor’s excesses for cartoonishly over-the-top scenes of blood and gore, but the movie unwisely treads into quasi-serious territory as Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) ponders the co-dependent relationship he finds himself in. And things grind to a halt when he becomes involved with Rebecca (Awkwafina, tragically underused), the daughter of a cop who died fighting corruption. The action scenes are fun, with Renfield chewing on a few bugs to give him the superstrength to rip off arms and cause fountains of blood. But any time the movie stumbles into remotely serious/dramatic territory, it falls off a cliff into a deep valley of banality. Hoult has given many fine performances during his career but he and Cage are oil and vinegar here and McKay’s direction (with a screenplay credited to Ryan Ridley) doesn’t shake things up enough to create the desired emulsion.

Renfield opens with a one-two punch that promises something far better than what the movie ultimately delivers. The story begins in the basement of a church where a self-help group has gathered for an AA-style support meeting for those trapped in toxic relationships. This is where Renfield, who had initially visited to find food for his convalescing master (too much time spent in the sun), has a startling moment of self-realization. His history is provided via a series of clips from Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula with Cage and Hoult digitally inserted into the black-and-white footage (replacing Lugosi and Dwight Frye). This gives Cage an opportunity to utter the classic line: “I never drink…wine.” Back in the present, Renfield discovers that he’s more interested in saving people (something he gets to do when a hit squad attacks a night club to kill Rebecca) than killing them. When he decides not to provide Dracula with a busload of cheerleaders or a few nuns, the vampire decides it’s time for a new familiar. For that role, he chooses the two-bit gangster Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), the son of mob donna Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo).

I’ll admit to having been disappointed by Renfield, which falls prey to the all-too-common belief that horror/comedies don’t need good storylines as long as they have some funny jokes and an engaging central performance or two. Renfield is really two movies. The good one lets Cage off his leash and provides him with the carte blanche to go all-out in portraying one of the iconic characters on his dream list. The bad one slaps together a bunch of dumb subplots with paper-thin, lackluster characters and somehow thinks an audience will care about them.

It's too bad Renfield doesn’t work because Cage has been patiently waiting his turn. The movie would have been much better if it had taken full advantage of the actor’s availability and willingness. Calling the movie Renfield mandates a certain amount of screen time for the uninspired title character and that’s the first mistake. I almost feel like I could recommend the movie for the 25-or-so minutes of delicious Dracula bloodsucking but, in order for the viewer to get that reward, there’s still another hour of just plain sucking to endure.

Renfield (United States, 2023)

Director: Chris McKay
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Shohreh Aghdashlooo
Screenplay: Ryan Ridley
Cinematography: Mitchell Amundsen
Music: Marco Beltrami
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2023-04-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity)
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1