The new Renfield field isn’t short of fun, but the definitive screen portrayal of the title character dates all the way back to 1930s cinema…
Comedy-horror film Renfield is out in cinemas at the moment. This modern twist on the Bram Stoker’s Dracula follows the lowly clerk and familiar of the famed Count – the titular Renfield. Alas, Renfield’s job isn’t easy and after decades of hunting, killing, and all sorts of bloody deeds, Starring Nicholas Hoult as Renfield and Nicolas Cage as Dracula, the film is a gory and hilarious comedy outing.
Renfield the character has been portrayed by many, many people before Hoult sunk his teeth into the role. From Klaus Kinski to Tom Waits, the character has had many iterations, but one thing has stayed true – his maniacal devotion to his master. And also, usually, his snacks of bugs, spiders, and anything creepy crawly.
However, the greatest ever actor to portray Renfield I’d suggest is Dwight Frye. Man, I adore Dwight Frye. The character actor worked mostly in supporting roles, often of unusual and lunatic nature.
Born in Kansas in 1899, Dwight Frye originally studied the piano before he got into acting. In the 1920s he appeared on-stage before having minor roles in silent comedy pictures.
It all changed in 1931 when he was cast in Tod Browning’s adaptation of Dracula. It is the most, arguably the best performance of the role. Wait, no, not arguably. It is. It is the best performance of Renfield.
The adaptation changes Renfield’s involvement somewhat. In the original Bram Stoker text, the character is already confined to the insane asylum whilst Jonathon Harker is travelling across Transylvania. However, Browning reimagines R M Renfield’s journey into the fiendish world of Dracula.
Opposite Bela Lugosi, Frye’s Renfield is both a captivated servant and a dwindling madman. He is immediately possessed by Dracula and drawn into his fiendish world of blood and mayhem. Giving many speeches about his master to the doctors around him, Frye plays Renfield as a man willingly to give his soul to the Prince of Darkness.
One scene which is seared into my mind is Frye emerging from the schooner Vesta. The crew and passengers all have mysteriously disappeared, and investigators search the vessel for survivors. There they find Renfield, clinging to steps in the storage below. His eyes wide and unwavering. His grin wide and fixated, baring teeth. He clings the bars as sunlight illuminates his stare. From the back of his throat, a laugh rings out with terrifying animosity. A laugh that is burned into the annuls of my mind forever more.
Frye here makes sure Renfield is just as wondrously insane and chilling as Lugosi’s vampiric villain is.
And yet…it isn’t just his complete obsession with Dracula that makes this performance. See, there is a somewhat tenderness to the character here. In fact, Renfield is ill-fated because he hates what his master has done, finally placing his life on the line before Dracula could transform Mina Seward into one his own. It is this desperation, juxtaposed with his crazed devotion in the first half of the film.
Since his performance in Dracula, Frye was cast in other horrors and thrillers as shady characters. He portrayed the hunchback assistant of Fritz in James Whale’s Frankenstein. Most people picture Frankenstein’s aid as Igor when actually, it was Frye’s Fritz who came first. And whilst his previous counterpart Bela Lugosi, would define the elements of Igor, Frye laid the groundwork of the shuffling, creepy servant.
Frye would later return to the Frankenstein series as a murderer named Karl in Bride Of Frankenstein (1935,) an uncredited villager in Son Of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942.) Finally, he’d perform as Rudi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943.)
The other role that I think is criminally underseen and showcases a lot of what makes Frye so brilliant of a performer is The Vampire Bat (1933.) Here, opposite Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, he plays the kind but shifty Gleib, who likes bats because they are soft like a cat, and nice. When there are a series of blood-themed murders, Gleib’s is sadly accused, owing to his strange nature and, you know, obsession with bats.
However, Gleib is innocent but that doesn’t stop an angry mob from hunting him and him eventually falling to his death. In a brilliant sequence where their amber accusatory torches are luminated against the black and white backdrop. It’s a prime example of prejudice against someone harmless, just a little bit weird and Frye does an excellent job of garnering sympathy from the audience in his most tragic moment.
Throughout his career, Frye split his time between film and stage roles – even appearing in musicals. Which is wild to imagine because he made such an impact as these villain (or villain adjacent,) performance. Frye would also appear in the original filmed version of The Maltese Falcon in (1931) and alongside James Cagney as a gangster in The Doorway to Hell (1930.) If you do want to see Frye in a more light-hearted role, then he plays a fussy hairdresser in Cagney musical Something to Sing About (1937.)
Unfortunately, Dwight Frye died of a heart-attack at just 44. However, his legacy lives on. Those crazed, murderous eyes, that stunning, sinister delivery, and brilliant captivating on-screen presence makes him one of the most famous and indelible character actors of all time.
Dwight Frye in Dracula remains the blueprint for the character, and it is a legendary performance. In fact, even in the Renfield movie, the moments that are truly exceptional were the moments where Hoult was imitating footage from Frye.
As no one could ever meet the epic highs of Frye….
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