When it comes to Universal monsters, Dracula might just be the big cheese. There are many reasons that a slew of iconic actors have been seen taking on the fangs over the past few decades in various vampire movies, not the least of which being that The Dark One is an undeniably fun character.
Whether he’s seducing unsuspecting women wandering castles in flowing gowns, or feasting on feeble victims, there’s plenty of opportunity for flare. And this is exactly what Nicolas Cage knows in the latest rendition of Count D.
Renfield is the story of Dracula’s devoted servant, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), who — after joining a support group for victims of codependency — realises that his mythical boss might have a couple of major red flags.
After deciding to break loose from his long-standing (literally — decades long) emotionally abusive relationship, Renfield brings the wrath of Dracula upon himself and those around him. Caught up in the fray include a wretched crime family fronted by overzealous son Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), and a frustrated young police officer (Awkwafina).
The comedy movie is led by Hoult as Renfield, in a role that seems tailor-made. As a slightly awkward, bumbling oddball, Hoult wins every time. And when it comes to Renfield, he brings a particularly endearing sensibility to the character, even as we see him slaughter victims to present to his master. While the film centres almost entirely on Renfield’s journey, Hoult carries the weight effortlessly on his shoulders. He flips between vicious killer and timid victim seamlessly.
Renfield is backed throughout the latter half of the film by police officer Rebecca, who is brought to life in an energetic performance by Awkwafina. As predicted, she is able to cap each scene off with a comedic beat that gives the standardised character of the Cop Who Goes Against The System a fresh twist.
Still, there’s one thing you’ve all been waiting for. One man, rather. Or…undead entity. Nicolas Cage completely kills as Dracula. (Pun very much intended.) In a performance that harkens back to his vibrant, scenery-chewing performances in films such as Con Air and Face/Off, it’s clear that Cage is having a ball.
He brings a flamboyance and physicality to Dracula that separates him from the past renditions of the legendary movie villain, but is clearly still making an effort to pay tribute to those who came before him. The movie is at its strongest when Cage is allowed to let rip.
Together, Cage and Hoult are a pretty effective on-screen partnership. Both are intent on delivering and doing so with as much theatricality as possible. It can’t be denied that they succeed.
The film also does a good job of trusting its audience. We already know about Dracula’s storied history, and Renfield wastes no time in over-explaining his various legacy traits. (Such as having to be invited into rooms, or being vulnerable to sunlight.) Instead, the movie utilises these known factors offhandedly and saves everyone the trouble of having to listen to a lesson in Dracula’s weaknesses.
The opening sequence is stunning work, presenting the origin of Renfield and Dracula’s relationship in a black-and-white celluloid sequence that acts as a throwback to the Lugosi era of Dracula. (Complete with some truly beautiful lighting that presents Cage as a Hollywood star of the Golden Age.) This opening is so enticing, that it could lead some audiences to wish that they were watching this movie instead.
In fact, the production design is top-notch all around. Artful and dominating sets occupy the space, and creative lighting and camera work heightens the strangeness of the characters and their situation. It’s refreshing to see a movie try and create a world as lively and ostentatious as this.
The lifeblood of Renfield comes from the high-octane fight sequences. The stunt work is imaginative and energetic, though the overall impact of these scenes is squandered slightly by some questionable CGI that presents the bloodshed as more of a rubbery mess than a tangible consequence. Still, if not taken too seriously, the action is silly and satisfying.
The action movie is undeniably funny, with each performer successfully providing a different comedic contribution. Hoult handles the quippy naivety of Renfield perfectly, while Awkwafina adds a fair amount with hot-headed exclamations. And then there’s Cage, who takes the cake with his beautifully drawled-out one-liners and absurd body language.
The inclusion of the Lobo crime family doesn’t add all too much, other than distracting from the main villain, Dracula, who provides a lot more bang for this movie’s buck. The only real moment in which the on-screen mafia syndicate seems to contribute something significant is during the final fight sequence in which Renfield must battle a small army of lackeys. That said, Ben Schwartz goes hard in his scenes as the incompetent and unlikeable Tommy, and keeps this particular narrative from being DOA.
Often choppy editing keeps the pace of the film snappy, but one can’t help but feel as if the first half hour feels rushed, most likely out of a desire to skip to the action. The rest of the runtime also sometimes suffers from a break-neck pace, which makes the far-and-few-between ‘talking’ moments feel lethargic. There’s also a notable lack of narrative in parts — though attempts are made to remedy this in small moments of character history for both Renfield and Rebecca, these fall somewhat flat.
There’s also plenty of exposition. What on-the-nose conversations there are about character pasts feel both surface-level and ineffective. One might have justified a slightly lengthier runtime to flesh out these moments in the interest of having stronger emotional sustenance. Luckily, the entertainment value remains high amid the on-screen chaos.
As fun as Renfield is, it can’t help but be felt that something is missing here. There’s a spine lacking in the film that might have made the whole endeavour feel a little stronger, a little more digestible. Without it, Renfield becomes a movie that is undeniably enjoyable on the first run, but would be unlikely to persuade you to go back for another rewatch.
Renfield will be released in UK and US cinemas from April 14. For more scares, check out everything we know about the Evil Dead Rise release date, the Saw 10 release date, and all the best ghost movies and thriller movies you can watch now. Don’t miss all these other new movies coming out in 2023, too.
Renfield is a wild ride that creates plenty of laughs, but lacks something beyond the surface-level fun. It’s a vampire movie with plenty of bark, but perhaps not quite enough bite.