Movie Review: Nicolas Cage’s version of Dracula sure is unique. A bloodthirsty vampire teaming with Nicholas Hoult for centuries may sound good on paper, but “Renfield” is too concerned with various subplots that don’t amount to much.
There’s a long lineage of vampire films that just don’t hit the right marks. For many, they try to insert the mythology and lore of the age-old monster tale into the mundane, daily lives of their human counterparts. For others, it may just be that technical and visual aesthetics weren’t able to keep up with the sets and effects that these movies require. And for “Morbius,” it’s just that it’s simply “Morbius.” But like many genres, stories, and recycled ideas, why not squeeze the O.G. vampire, Dracula, into a splintered comedy with gore amped up to 11? Enter, “Renfield.”
If you’ve sat in a movie theater over the past six months, I’m sure you have a decent idea of a few key shots of “Renfield” given how often the trailer has been marketed far and wide, but I still felt like I was going into this Nicolas Cage-led monster comedy rather blind. After all, the few scenes shown to us aren’t packaged in a way that makes much sense or gives away enough of the plot to coherently put together.
Nevertheless, “Renfield” stars Nicholas Hoult as the titular character R.M. Renfield – a “familiar” – or servant and sidekick – to Dracula, himself. Nicolas Cage dons the black cloak this time around and gives a rather vicious and demonizing performance, even if he occasionally dips back into the movie-star quips that keep him from becoming a truly convincing anti-villain. Even if his turn at Dracula brings a few eyerolls or “struggle bars,” his connection to Renfield through centuries serves as the film’s brightest storyline.
Because “Renfield” sure does have a handful of storylines. While not all bad, they combine to make “Renfield” a packed film. Awkwafina rounds out the starring cast as Rebecca Quincy, a traffic cop struggling with the city’s increased corruption, the death of her father, and her mediocre career path. The attempts to twine these plotlines together in “Renfield” bring murky results. If the Cage-Hoult dynamic serves up the film’s best moments, the Hoult-Awkwafina dynamic serves the worst ones.
While not particularly fond of many of the acting choices by any of the leading cast here, I want to point out that the direction and script (Chris McKay and Ryan Ridley, respectively) don’t give the actors much room to work with. Instead, “Renfield” is the latest entry into a growing subgenre of violence-core films. While the classic studio comedy may be dying in movie theaters, it’s been replaced by an overflowing number of movies aiming to draw laughs by providing hyper-violent, overly-bloody set pieces and sequences. “Deadpool” really championed this new wave of filmmaking, and as recently as “Violent Night” has it been updated with new ideas and ways of slaughtering people.
Unfortunately for “Renfield,” however, those movies are able to conjure up a joke to fill space when needed. This script doesn’t provide many genuine jokes, and the cast isn’t capable of getting into rhythm with how quickly it transitions to new scenes or spaces. About halfway through the movie, I struggled grasping onto any characterization or motivation at all. Nicolas Cage’s Dracula is presented as a villainous, world-dominating monster. But when offered any opportunity to dive further into his character in detail, they stray away in favor of more oddly paced dialogue and action.
At its best, “Renfield” works as an extremely campy and self-indulging monster flick that harkens to the likes of “Mortal Kombat” mixed with dashes of Edgar Wright and classic horror cinema. I thought often of Netflix’s “Day Shift” from last year, but that’s a movie with better pacing, world building, and a sense of humor. Chris McKay’s most prominent directing credit before “Renfield” was “The LEGO Batman Movie” – and it kinda makes sense. “Renfield” is hyper and twitchy, and the only actor that feels comfortable in this space is Nicholas Hoult. I’m not sure if this is why the edit chooses to leave Cage out of the first 30 minutes of this film almost entirely, but it would make sense if so.
While not an entirely flat horror-comedy, “Renfield” still smells of an early-season, trashy studio movie that didn’t quite make the cut for blockbuster season. I’ll hold out hope that catching it at home and giving it another chance may save it for me, but I felt myself struggling to justify this movie’s existence as I left the theater. There’s two movies in one, and one was strangely better than the other.
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