Renfield review: makes Dracula into a modern action-comedy

Nicholas Hoult as Robert Renfield in Renfield.
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Renfield is no longer content with life as Dracula’s servant in this bloody action-comedy starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage – here’s our review.

Universal’s attempt at a ‘dark universe’ connecting their classic monster characters may have fallen through, but now we have a completely different kind of adaptation – Renfield. It’s in many ways a Dracula film, but the focus isn’t on Dracula. It’s on the titular protagonist, his long-suffering familiar, played here by Nicholas Hoult. 

Rushing through the tale of how they first met (the narrative of the traditional Dracula tale) in black and white, Hoult narrates how he became a vampire’s servant – lured in by false promises that were never delivered upon. Here we get our first glimpse of Nicolas Cage as his deceptive master, and quite frankly he looks great lit in a soft spotlight à la Bela Lugosi. 

However, a traditional rendition of this story Renfield is not, and it quickly sheds its classical black and white image to show us its true colours. Moments later, Cage and Hoult are fighting against priests and vampire hunters, with limbs tearing and blood spewing. This is all accompanied still by Hoult’s voice-over, explaining the origins of his own powers. As it turns out, the one upside to being a vampire’s assistant is superpowers granted by (wait for it) eating bugs. 

Anyway, that battle ends in success, but with Dracula badly injured. It’s Renfield’s task to bring him enough food to nurse him back to health or, as he refers to it, full power. That’s where the story really begins, as the duo hide out in an abandoned hospital in present-day New Orleans. It’s a lonely existence, and Dracula’s company isn’t exactly pleasant, and so he decides to cut ties with his weakened master and live a normal, happy life. But his newfound conscience soon sees him caught up with a police investigation against a powerful crime family, and his master won’t let him go that easily. 

The Lego Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War director Chris McKay takes on this adaptation penned by Rick And Morty and Community writer Ryan Ridley.

The most interesting part of this take on Dracula is the focus on the unhealthy, dependent relationship that Renfield has with him. This is often made into a joke through various scenes of Hoult attending group therapy to deal with his problems, and generally his emotional entanglements are treated lightheartedly, the film favouring bloody action and constant quips over any kind of emotional weight. Granted, taking this more seriously may have compromised some of the film’s comedy, but it does seem a bit like a missed opportunity to explore an interesting angle. 

As it is, the movie jumps from group therapy to various fights. Renfield’s powers seem to grant him super strength, and there’s no shortage of blood and bodies flying around. In fact, the flying does sometimes get a bit much – I occasionally thought I could instead be watching The Matrix. All the while, Hoult’s narration creeps back in, morphing more into a voicing of his character’s thoughts than an explanation of plot. Most often it returns in the form of him swearing in astonishment after he’s done something cool, which is actually decidedly uncool.

Nicolas Cage as Dracula in Renfield.

In no way does this reflect badly on Hoult; he’s actually very likeable in this. As is Awkwafina playing traffic cop Rebecca Quincey, though it’s a sidekick character that’s familiar to others she’s played before. Renfield’s problems mainly arise from a hammy and heavy-handed script. Both the dialogue and the narration come across as just a bit too cheesy at times, and the movie has an awkward habit of characters saying things that either describe the plot as it’s happening or clearly signpost the direction in which proceedings are going. 

Combined with some genuinely amusing moments and enjoyable action sequences, it’s something that can be occasionally overlooked, but often the action isn’t quite exciting enough to balance this out. It’s certainly no John Wick, or, despite its clear influence, Deadpool. 

The biggest redeeming quality here, though, is (expectedly) Cage. It’s been a while since we’ve had a particularly vocal Cage performance. Outside of moments of self parody in The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent last year, we’ve recently seen the actor in Westerns like The Old Way and Butcher’s Crossing. Then there’s his surprisingly sombre and memorable turn in Pig. 

By comparison, this is an 11/10 Cage performance. Physically, his performance contains shades of Max Shreck’s vampiric Count in Nosferatu. In terms of his line deliveries, this is pure Cage. Like much of his early work, he not only has memorable shouty moments, but also enunciates all of the wrong words. No one delivers lines quite as creatively as Nic Cage, and his work here is delightful.   

It’s a shame that his character doesn’t appear that often, and his actions and goals throughout the film become either nonsensical or painfully stereotypical. While many of the film’s characters fall victim to the heavy-handed script, Cage manages to really elevate his scenes to the point where it makes you look forward to his next appearance. 

As it happens, he’s also elevated the number of stars I’m inclined to give Renfield. Perhaps a dark Cage-verse, in which Nicolas Cage plays all the monsters, is the answer to what Universal should do with its monster properties? 

Renfield is in cinemas on 14th April.

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