Hollywood has long been a fan of monster movies and Universal Pictures is attempting to tap into its catalogue by bringing the character of Dracula to the screen once again. This time around with his long suffering familiar and assistant Renfield to cater to all his needs. Even though some of their recent modern offerings such as Van Helsing (2004) and The Mummy (2017) were more miss than hit. The 2020 fresh take on The Invisible Man brought a contemporary examination of a toxic ex-boyfriend who goes crazy on his ex-girlfriend. Director Chris McKay’s Renfield (2023) is a new spin on a familiar’s story.
We are introduced to R. M. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) sitting in on a dependents anonymous meeting, hoping to extricate himself from his working relationship with Dracula (Nicolas Cage). Being a familiar to the Dark Lord and most famous vampire isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He has to tend to his Master’s needs by finding suitable humans for him to feast upon and move them around when their activities start causing suspicion.
After accidentally getting entangled with the New Orleans crime cartel and its matriarch Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shoreh Aghdashloo) and her inept moronic son Tedward “Teddy” Lobo (Ben Schwartz), Renfield pairs up with the one lone honest cop on the police force; Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) to try and take them down.
With a screenplay by Ryan Ridley, Robert Kirkman and Ava Tramer, the story opts to take the focus away from the iconic character of Dracula and centre on Renfield and his attempts to escape his not so fantastic life. The film’s strength lies in examining the toxic codependent relationship between Renfield and Dracula, the depiction of a bullying narcissist boss exploiting his subordinate; something that too many of us have probably experienced in real life in the workplace.
It also leans into the modern day trendiness of self-help positivity and the comedic idea of trying to apply real world psychology and therapy tactics to a scenario involving a supernatural creature. McKay’s use of over the top violence, gore and excessive fake blood adds to the preposterousness of the film in an almost loving B-grade movie way. If you enjoyed What We Do In The Shadows, there’s some similarities in tone.
The film’s weakness is its attempts to cram in the less convincing subplot of Hoult’s Renfield trying to strike up a friendship or romance or something with Awkwafina’s police officer Quincy. And whilst the two have a pleasant chemistry together, it never feels properly earned or believable. Quincy’s own character arc feels under-done and very surface level with minimal exposition backstory delivered via the briefest of dialogue scenes. And the under-use of the excellent Shoreh Aghdashloo is criminal in itself.
Cage’s performance as Dracula is a literal scene stealing delight as he channels his best Bela Lugosi impersonation with occasional ventures into his own Vampire’s Kiss maniacal moments. And whilst infrequently his absurd accent gets caught behind his shark-like teeth, you can just tell Cage is enjoying himself finally getting to play the classical monster.
Hoult is genuinely endearing as the downtrodden awkward dweeb who just wants to live a normal life for once. You want to root for him despite some of his less than savoury deeds over the past near century and his gradual transformation from the enslaved to being liberated gives you some little warm and fuzzies.
Renfield is a comedically gory and wacky story about what it’s like working for Dracula and how much it sucks. And whilst the physical comedy, pop culture homages and downright amusing antics onscreen make for an enjoyable watch. The insistence on cramming an extra subplot or two detracts from the film’s overall diverting nature making it feel a little overstuffed. The 90-ish minute runtime means everything is kept pretty fast paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Come for the outrageous Cage as Dracula, but stay for the motivational moments of learning to take back your own power.
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