By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Dracula has been a staple of cinema dating back to the horror classic Nosferatu in 1922. Since then, filmmakers have attempted a variety of different takes on the character, experimenting with tone, visuals, and lore to avoid repetition and keep the iconic vampire refreshing for over 100 years. The latest spin on the classic Dracula tale is Renfield, a new horror comedy from director Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie, The Tomorrow War) from a script by Ryan Ridley (Ghosted, Rick & Morty) inspired by an original idea from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman.
Renfield stars Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Menu), the loyal servant of Dracula (played by Nicolas Cage) tasked with procuring victims for his master. After years of servitude, however, Renfield begins to question his toxic, codependent relationship with the Prince of Darkness and tries to find a way out with the help of police officer Rebecca Quincy (played by The Farewell’s Awkwafina).
Given the seemingly countless iterations of the Dracula story brought to the silver screen over the past century, it’s increasingly difficult to craft a vampire story about the dreaded count that isn’t marred by tropes. To the credit of both clever directing from Chris McKay and a witty screenplay by Ryan Ridley, however, Renfield proves to be the most refreshingly original Dracula story for some time. Packing Edgar Wright-esque pacing and editing, McKay propels Renfield forward at brisk, but never overwhelming pace. With a tight 93 minute runtime, Renfield never lingers nor bores, instead hopping scene to scene with comically horrific violence, hilarious one-liners, and continually creative spins on vampire lore.
As introduced with narration from Nicholas Hoult’s Renfield, the film is grounded in and keeps coming back to group therapy sessions that Renfield attends for people like him struggling in toxic, codependent relationships. The idea that Renfield seeks comfort in and advice from individuals in toxic romantic or familial relationships makes for an effective, running joke, but also serves as the film’s emotional backbone. Behind the laughs elicited by Renfield’s struggles with his ill-tempered narcissistic boss there is a real tragedy and heart that makes Renfield far more compelling and nuanced than the average horror comedy.
This emotional lynchpin is also fostered through the introduction of Awkwafina’s Rebecca Quincy, a traffic cop for the New Orleans Police Department whose investigation into a crime family puts her on a collision course with Renfield and his dreaded boss. Renfield is inspired by Quincy’s bravery in the face of evil as she refuses to back down from intimidation in a manner Renfield wishes he could display toward his boss Dracula. Quickly, Renfield falls head over heels for Quincy and Quincy sees the endearing qualities of Renfield, all of which makes for a surprisingly effective and touching love story.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Renfield without Dracula. And McKay’s film definitely features a jaw-dropper of a Dracula. Nicolas Cage takes on the role previously assumed by legends Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and delivers a wholly distinct, captivating performance that only Nicolas Cage could deliver. Introduced in a terrific and creative retelling of the events of the 1931 film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, Cage’s Dracula features significantly in Renfield and expertly captures a balance of horror and comedy. While Renfield certainly leans more heavily toward comedy than horror, Cage’s Dracula is as frightening as he is hilarious. This unusual combination could make for a tonally inconsistent film, but Cage brings incredible balance to the role. Cage’s Dracula fosters sheer terror and wouldn’t be out of place in a bonafide horror film about Dracula. Conversely, however, Cage’s distinct mannerisms, line delivery, and willingness to play into the absurdities of this codependency make for a truly memorable performance, and undoubtedly one of the funniest of the year to date.
If Renfield fuses horror and comedy together, it may also be said that it throws in a healthy dose of action movie antics in the mix too. Renfield features a number of elaborate action sequences that will evoke genuine laughs and disgust in equal parts. The violence is extreme and certainly over-the-top, but never proves to be disturbing or off-putting. At one point in the film, Renfield rips the arms off of a criminal and impales two other criminals with the detached limbs. It’s scenes like this that populate Renfield so heavily and are so absurdly violent that one can’t help but crack a smile and laugh along.
As yet another take on Dracula, Renfield intelligently plays with the Dracula story and vampire lore. Classic tropes like vampires being repelled by the Bible and only entering a place if they are welcomed play creative roles in Renfield and serve as the basis for a number of effective laughs. In addition, the film is filled to the brim with neat easter eggs eagle-eyed viewers will recognize (the police captain in the film is named Browning in honor of Todd Browning, the director of the 1931 Dracula film, for instance). There’s an authentic adoration for the source material in every scene of Renfield, but also a bold willingness to take this classic tale in a novel direction.
Renfield works best when spending time with its core trio of characters and creatively playing off the Dracula story. However, quite a bit of time in the film is dedicated to a side plot that is eventually, and unfortunately misguidedly, promoted to a more central narrative come the film’s final act. Ben Schwartz plays Teddy Lobo, a mob enforcer who serves under his mother Ella (played by Shoreh Aghdashloo) as part of the city’s most feared crime family. Renfield soon crosses paths with this crime family as he kills several of the crime family’s men and becomes a target for the Lobos. The crime family plot threads in Renfield are overplayed and are never as interesting as when the film is spending time with Renfield, Dracula, and Quincy focused on the core theme of breaking free from servitude.
Featuring a scene-stealing performance from Nicolas Cage as an equally terrifying and hilarious Dracula, Renfield proves to be the most refreshingly original Dracula story for some time. Although hampered by a less interesting crime family plot, Chris McKay’s film is a fast paced crowd-pleaser that will bring smiles and gasps alike to audiences. Grounded in themes of codependency and toxic relationships, Renfield manages to be a contemporary and relatable story, but also one that is as witty and clever as it is touching and endearing. Don’t wait to sink your teeth into Renfield.