'Renfield': Nicolas Cage is Great as Dracula, But This Horror-Comedy Lacks Bite
On paper, a film about the relationship between Count Dracula and his familliar, R.M Renfield, has some serious potential. Giving the character Renfield a bigger spotlight in general is an inspired idea, as he isn't as widely known as Dracula, and most mainstream audiences don't have a frame of reference for him. Add in Nicholas Hoult as Renfield and Nicolas Cage as Count Dracula himself, and in theory, you should have a pretty solid film. However, the exciting possibilities within the premise of Renfield are largely squandered, and the film as a whole ends up being rather bland and hollow.
Set in present-day New Orleans, the film follows R.M. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) who has been serving Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage) for 90 years. He has grown tired of the abuse that Dracula has put him through, and attends support group meetings for people in co-dependent relationships. He dreams of a life free from servitude, and finds himself gaining the courage to accomplish it. But Renfield soon finds that this is much easier said than done, and finds himself in serious trouble when he crosses paths with a dangerous crime family while on the job. Between the growing threat that they pose, and Dracula becoming more and more powerful, Renfield must fight to survive in order to live the life he wants to.
I am always intrigued when filmmakers take a new approach to classic stories and characters. These projects tend to be hit or miss, but I can't help but be curious about them. Renfield in particularly intrigued me, partially because of Nicolas Cage as Dracula, but also because the idea of a film from the perspective of his familiar sounded like it had the potential to be amusing. Sadly, this is a film that is good in theory, but doesn't nail the execution. The film wants to be campy and over-the-top, yet it holds itself back so many times throughout the movie. When it does lean more into over-the-top territory, it ends up feeling out of place from the rest of the movie. Make no mistake, those moments are the best parts of the film, and had me wishing it would have committed more to a more wacky tone. Instead, most of the film is kind of lazy, and the humor all throughout falls flat. Furthermore, the story is thinly written, and it feels too slight to really make any impact. When it focuses on the Renfield/Dracula dynamic, it's not too bad, but everything else is pretty weak. It just feels very basic and surface level, and doesn't do anything too interesting or unique with what should be a fun premise.
The film dials up the blood and gore to 10, which honestly is pretty effective in the film's violent scenes. However, the action scenes are rough, not because of the violence, but because they are choppily edited. The camera is also far too active in these moments, so between the two, it is often hard to fully make out what is going on. It is clear that director Chris McKay doesn't have an eye for action, as this is one of the most glaring issues of the film. Perhaps with a filmmaker much more suited for action and over-the-top violence, these moments would have worked far better, but alas, they end up being borderline unwatchable.
If nothing else, Nicolas Cage is great as Dracula. Unfortunately, he isn't in the film nearly as much as the trailers and advertising would make it seem. I'd even make the argument that he is underused, as he clearly has the juice that this film so desperately needs. I get that this is Renfield's film and all, but Cage is easily the most interesting part of the film, so it would have made a lot of sense to capitalize on that. Regardless, he does a good job of channeling Bela Lugosi in his portrayal of Dracula without it feeling like a straight-up impression. Cage blends Lugosi's iconic take on Dracula with his own distinct acting style to deliver a solid performance, even if the film itself squanders it.
As for the rest of the cast, Nicholas Hoult is pretty good as Renfield, and plays his beleaguredness quite well. Hoult has shown himself to be a very capable actor over the years, so it's no surprise that he makes the best of what he is given here. The material may be a bit lacking, but he does a solid job in the role. He plays somewhat of a straight-man, but he does get the chance to have some fun, and is quite affable as well. I was a little disappointed in Awkwafina's performance, which is more due to how the character is written as opposed to her acting. She plays Rebecca Quincy, a New Orleans police officer who is investigating the crime family that Renfield accidentally gets tied up with. Rebecca is written very one-dimensionally, and while Awkwafina does her best to salvage the character, she just isn't able to. It doesn't help that she is basically playing a straight-man to Renfield, who is playing a straight man to Dracula. This makes hers and Hoult's scenes feel a bit dull, and drag the film down a bit. The rest of the cast is fine, but their characters are also poorly written. It's a shame, because the cast has a lot of talent, but the material doesn't serve them well at all.
Save for Nicolas Cage's performance, Renfield is a pretty big disappointment. It wants so badly to be a wild, over-the-top horror-comedy, but it feels caught being that and being something more palatable for mainstream audiences. It ends up feeling uneven and uninspired, and wastes its potential in almost every regard. I can't help but feel that there was a clearer vision with this film, but it got mangled in the process. I truly wish that it would have focused much more on the dynamic between Renfield and Dracula, as I do think that would have helped it a bit. Instead, the film is unfocused and mediocre at best, and fails to leave much of an impresssion.