For years now, Universal Pictures has tried unsuccessfully to resurrect a franchise based on the studio’s iconic monsters. The most recent attempt was made in 2017 with a reboot of The Mummy that starred Tom Cruise and would be the first film in what was to be called the Dark Universe series. The movie bombed and the planned series was scrapped. Then in 2020, a new version of The Invisible Man was released which focused on the unseen villain’s ex-wife played by Elisabeth Moss. It became a huge hit. It was scary but had very little blood. This weekend, the studio is releasing a new monster film that is the complete opposite.
Renfield is a bizarre twist on the classic Dracula story which focuses more on his familiar and servant. Though it is a horror film, it’s not scary in the least. Just gross. And actually, very funny. The movie begins with recreations of the studio’s 1931 black-and-white movie Dracula with Nicolas Cage filling in for Bela Lugosi and Nicolas Hoult as the ill-fated Renfield, originally played by Dwight Frye. With Cage reciting the movie’s original line, “I never drink…wine,” this is probably the best gimmick in the whole film. It is also where the movie completely strays from the original tale.
Renfield himself narrates the tale and mercifully explains his co-dependent relationship with his employer in a matter of minutes rather than make us sit through a long backstory. Despite how the movie Dracula ends, this Drac lives on for centuries. He continues his killing spree which often lands him in trouble by narrowly escaping death. His saving grace is servant bringing him dead bodies for him to feast on to regain his strength. And the then the cycle begins again.
Not surprisingly, Cage is brilliant playing a vampire. It’s not his first time though. He once played a wanna-be ghoul in the 1989 flop, Vampire’s Kiss. But Hoult too has played his share of creepy people. He once played a zombie love interest in Warm Bodies, a blue “Beast” in X-Men: First Class and most recently, a despicable foodie in The Menu. He is perfect as the tortured one having to respond to every one of his master’s demands. (But he gets the upper hand with the majority of the best lines.)
As with the original film, Renfield has a conscious. Instead of seeking out just anybody to attack, he centers on finding bad people to kill. He does so by eating bugs which gives him supernatural strength for some reason. (It is just one of the plot holes that the movie glosses over.) Renfield attends a co-dependency support group (led by Brandon Scott Jones of CBS’s Ghosts), not for himself, but to get leads on where to find these bad people who have hurt his friends in the group.
After a strange series of events, Renfield finds himself a hero for the first time in his life and is praised by Rebecca (Awkwafina), a member of the New Orleans Police Department and others. It’s a beautiful day and something resonates with him. He no longer wants to serve a narcissistic boss and aims to change his life. Just when you thought this goofy comedy couldn’t get any weirder, it continues to go off the rails when Drac makes friends with mob enforcer Tedward (Ben Schwartz) and his mother Bellafrancesca (Shonreh Aghdashloo). To put it mildly, there will be blood.
Renfield is directed by Chris McKay from a screenplay by Ryan Ridley which was based on an original idea by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. While highly entertaining with a brisk pace, this horror film just isn’t scary. No feelings of dread. Not even a single jump scare. Renfield plays more like an action film. Far from family-friendly, Renfield features over-the-top violence in a way that would make Quinten Tarantino proud. It is less Dead and loving It and more like A Werewolf in London. In fact, there is just too many scenes of a decomposing Dracula which only serves as a distraction from Nicolas Cage really vamping it up.
Awkwafina’s large mannerisms and Hoult’s unassuming dry humor make for a great team. I’d gladly see another movie where these two are paired up again any time. They also bring, dare a say, a more human touch to this fantasy film. It has heart with messages about forgiveness of others as well as forgiveness of oneself not to mention the age-old story of good versus evil.
Main Image: Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Hoult in Renfield.
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