“Renfield” – All bite and no bark.
Six years ago, Universal Studios attempted to start a franchise called Dark Universe that was supposed to feature a bunch of classic horror characters. The first movie, The Mummy, did exactly what I predicted it would do. Namely, it crushed the franchise in its infancy. With the Dark Universe stomped to dust, Universal did what any studio desperate to revive intellectual property would do – hire Nicolas Cage to play Dracula in a movie titled Renfield.
While Cage’s last movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was a critical success, it was not a commercial success. Cage’s box office results over the past fifteen years have been pretty ugly. The last non-animated success Cage had was 2007’s National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Since then, Cage starred in a string of mediocre to eye-coveringly bad movies. Massive Talent worked primarily because it featured Cage making fun of his own life and career, but that film probably doesn’t work with any other actor. Either Cage begged Universal to let him be Dracula or Universal never saw Season of the Witch.
Credit to Universal for trying something different with Dracula. Renfield is an action comedy told from the standpoint of Renfield (Nicholas Hoult). It’s not absurd like Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but it’s also not serious like Interview with a Vampire. Renfield attempts to follow the path of Warm Bodies, presenting a light-hearted romp humanizing the traditionally loathsome Renfield. Where Warm Bodies cast zombies as sympathetic characters needing to rediscover emotions to become human again, Renfield casts a sympathetic character trapped in a codependent relationship with Dracula, looking for a way out of Dracula’s control to become human again.
The good news is Renfield is entertaining. The heart of the film is apparent in every action sequence, bodies exploding in fountains of bright red blood, body parts being torn from torsos then used to kill more bad guys, and enough novelty deaths to make Chuck Norris proud. The frantic and choppy camera work in these scenes left something to be desired, but it wasn’t distracting enough to detract from the scenes.
Also quite entertaining are the performances from Cage, Hoult, Awkwafina, and Ben Schwartz. All of them were noticeably enjoying themselves, especially in those action scenes. Schwartz makes the most of this opportunity, playing a drug cartel lieutenant with a zeal and gusto that comes from knowing exactly what kind of movie this is. Awkwafina plays Rebecca Quincy, a traffic cop bent on trying to take down the cartel. While Quincy is tragically underdeveloped, Awkwafina provides much of the comic relief and even manages to pull off action sidekick. Hoult shines as the title character, though like Quincy, he suffers from far too little character development. Hoult is convincing as both an action star – featured in several scenes piling up a body count – and a charming and disarming everyman just trying to get back his life. For better and for worse, Cage overshadows all three of them.
Cage is clearly channeling the Nicky Cage of his youth, chewing up scenery and delivering a very memorable and depraved Dracula. It wasn’t a perfect performance as his enthusiasm caused him to break character a couple of times (once during a rant in Renfield’s apartment and again during the climactic fight scene). We’ll forgive him though since he had to deliver his lines through a mouth full of sharpened teeth.
The bad news is Renfield suffers from an incoherent and scattershot plot that exposes how hard the film needs to lean into its over-the-top action scenes to paper over its bad writing. A main component of the film is that Renfield attends support-group meetings for people in toxic, codependent relationships. In the right hands, this theme could be really funny and clever, but the screenplay goes for the obvious and mostly unfunny play. Renfield describes his relationship with Dracula as a generic work relationship to group leader Mark (Brandon Scott Jones). Mark tells Renfield to stand up to his boss (Dracula) and take his power back. The joke here is obvious – a play on words because Dracula has actual supernatural powers – but it falls flat because the movie never commits to breaking the codependency as the main motivation. Instead, the film throws in the drug cartel, an entire city of corrupt cops, an extremely weak attempt at a romance between Quincy and Renfield, an abandoned family, and Dracula’s desire to take over the world. But Renfield wears an ugly sweater after ghosting Dracula and that’s funny…maybe?
In addition to the failed theme, the film is riddled with inconsistencies and head-scratching decisions. After Dracula is nearly killed during an opening flashback scene, we’re told that Renfield is responsible for providing victims for Dracula to heal himself and that the recovery process is very slow. We are even treated to a delightfully grotesque, half-constituted Dracula hobbling around on a cane, complaining to Renfield that he wants to feast on cheerleaders and nuns instead of drug-addicts. Yet, Dracula quickly becomes fully healed despite Renfield delivering no more victims after that.
While we may be able to overlook that plot hole, it’s far more difficult to understand why the entire New Orleans police force needed to be corrupt in this story. The drug cartel provides plenty of cannon fodder for the fight scenes, so why insert a bunch of cops? Like with the support group, the corrupt cops subplot seems to be there to generate cheap laughs, but it too falls flat, especially since Quincy’s FBI agent sister Kate (Camille Chen) literally works down the hall.
When I weigh the good news against the bad news, the good news squeaks out the win. While the bad writing pulled the movie down several notches, I found more than enough glee in the action and performances. It was a little disappointing that the movie didn’t try harder to write a better story, not to mention fleshed out characters, but it’s rare to find such reckless abandon in action sequences work so well. We’ll never see the Dark Universe that Universal envisioned, but at least they managed a fun Dracula.
Rating: Ask for five dollars back – the action sequences weren’t that good.