By Alex McPherson
Despite an entertainingly unhinged performance from Nicolas Cage and some impressive kills, director Chris McKay’s “Renfield” is a horror-action-comedy hybrid full of unexplored potential.
Positioned as a quasi-sequel to Tod Browning’s 1931 “Dracula,” “Renfield” begins with a black-and-white prologue introducing us to the story’s characters, creatively inserting Cage and Nicholas Hoult into footage from the original film.
In the present day, R. M. Renfield (Hoult) is caring for his decaying master, Dracula (Cage), in a creepy New Orleans hotel after skilled vampire hunters nearly kill him 90 years prior. Renfield, given powers through consuming insects instead of blood, is Dracula’s “familiar.”
This involves him looking after the Count and retrieving victims. Renfield’s not a monster, though — he targets “bad” folks to bring back — and attends a support group for people in codependent relationships to track down their tormentors for fresh blood. But Renfield’s quite unhappy, guilted and threatened into continued servitude by his narcissistic manipulator, who seeks world domination.
On one of his errands, Renfield has a run-in with Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), a chatterbox enforcer and member of the Lobo crime family, led by his mother Bella-Francesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo), which has ties all over New Orleans and immunity from local police.
Well, everyone except Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), an exasperated traffic cop whose father, also a policeman, was gunned down by the Lobos. She seeks justice and revenge, as coworkers and her FBI-agent sister, Kate (Camille Chen), do little to support her. Before long, Renfield and Rebecca cross paths, teaming up to take down the Lobos and Dracula — developing a will-they-won’t-they relationship as each gathers courage to confront their demons.
Fumbling opportunities to be a clever look at codependency and overcoming (literal and figurative) demons, “Renfield” ultimately needs more meat on its bones. The cast is game, the gore is flowing, but pacing is erratic, editing is imprecise, and the script (by Ryan Ridley, from an idea by Robert Kirkman) doesn’t have the guts to go all-in on the concept, leaving a more promising story tantalizingly out of reach.
That’s not to say there’s not fun to be had, particularly regarding Cage and Hoult’s performances. Cage was practically born to play Dracula, and he delivers, providing a satisfying mixture of his characteristic craziness with deadpan wit and, crucially, menace when proceedings call for it.
“Renfield” provides another vehicle for him to flex his chops — aided by masterfully gross makeup effects that at one point see him bully the titular lad while resembling a mangled sack of meat not unlike the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Hoult as Renfield is similarly well-cast, bringing an anxious, sad-sack energy to the film that’s simultaneously quite funny and, in some scenes, poignant, as we witness his (exceedingly rushed) arc towards empowerment. When he’s not engaging in splatterific brawls (one featuring newly removed arms being used as weapons), Hoult brings real pathos to scenes where Dracula berates and mistreats him.
In one memorable sequence, Renfield fruitlessly tries to stand up for himself while reciting lines from a self-help book. The Count laughs and dismisses his arguments with a mocking mean-spiritedness that feels oddly grounded in reality, posturing that “Renfield” aims to be higher-brow than it actually is.
Indeed, the film’s 93-minute runtime and tacked-on subplots limit the development of this central dynamic, which begins as the film’s main focus, but abandons any and all complexity by the finale.
Additionally, “Renfield” clearly tries to paint parallels between Renfield and Rebecca overcoming adversity, but neither are given enough time to leave an impact. Awkwafina is perfectly fine, having serviceable chemistry with Hoult, but she and the rest of the ensemble can only do so much with obvious, reference-heavy humor that lacks wit or surprise — with the exception of the support group, who provide most of the film’s twisted laughs.
The Rebecca/Lobo subplot does, at least, provide opportunities for over-the-top action sequences, which deliver amusing slapstick comedy. “Renfield” won’t disappoint gore-hounds with its abundance of decapitations, impalings, and other fateful excesses, accompanied by fountains of (fake-looking) blood.
If only the film’s cinematography and editing gave more clarity to the carnage; quick cuts and overuse of slow-motion distract from the choreography. More broadly, this imprecision extends to dialogue-heavy scenes, too. The rushed pacing leads to oddly cut sequences sans rhythm or flair — a disappointment, given the detailed production design and capable cast.
We’re left with a fun-enough, though unfortunately generic, experience that plays like an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon. Perhaps that’s acceptable, but “Renfield” dulls its promising conceit into something with considerably less bite.
“Renfield” is a 2023 horror comedy directed by Chris McKay and starring Nicolas Cage, Nicholas Hoult, Ben Schwartz, Awkwafina, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Camille Chen. It is Rated R for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use, and the runtime is 93 minutes. It opened in theatres April 14. Alex’s Grade: B-.
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd and a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.