WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
Renfield — Nicolas Cage sinks his teeth into Dracula
American actor and film producer Nicolas Cage, the cultishly popular star, plays Dracula in this extremely gory, unbalanced pitch-black comedy.
There are people that say their boss is a monster; then there are those few, very unfortunate souls whose employer actually is a devil. Ranked among the latter group is RM Renfield, one of the most iconic henchmen of all time, and the focus of gory new horror comedy Renfield, starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage.
If the name “Renfield” sounds familiar, it’s because the character first appeared in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, as a bug-eating madman under the thrall of the most famous fictional vampire in history. Played by Hoult in the new movie reimagining, Renfield keeps a tight hold on his senses, but is just as psychologically tormented. Having spent decades in dutiful service to Dracula (Cage) — and feeling especially guilty over the innocents he kidnapped to satisfy his master’s blood lust — Renfield is ready to claim back his independence. But it’s not until the murderous pair hole up in present-day New Orleans that Renfield finds the strength to act on his plan, inspired by police officer Rebecca (Awkwafina), who is standing up to the powerful Lobo crime family, headed by Shohreh Aghdashloo’s ruthless matriarch, and her poser son Teddy (Ben Schwartz).
If you’re only watching Renfield to see Cage embrace his role as the Prince of Darkness, you’ll be satisfied. While his accent changes from moment to moment, Cage demonstrates his usual commitment to conveying derangement. He’s clearly relishing the opportunity to play a master manipulator and narcissist, who can also be straight-up terrifying at times. Whether dialled up or down, Cage gives a terrific performance, supported by excellent make-up effects that actually enhance rather than smother his work. Hoult, meanwhile, is fine, filling a wide-eyed straight man function, and he elicits sympathy from the audience with his awkward, beaten-down manner.
The problem with Renfield as a movie, is that it’s a lot like someone dropped the entire defrosted contents of a butchery freezer into a blender, and forgot to put the lid on before flicking the switch. The best way to describe it is that it feels like an on-screen comic book adaptation from the mid-1990s, think The Mask. Renfield has a consistent aura of artifice around it. Very little rings true, which is fine if you enjoy stylised entertainment, but tonally it’s all over the place, with extremely over-the-top violence involving torn-off limbs and buckets of blood regularly tossed across the screen.
The impression of a comic book, or live-action cartoon, makes more sense when you discover that Renfield stems from a story by indie comics icon Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Invincible), a screenplay by Ryan Ridley (Rick & Morty, Community), and is directed by The Lego Batman Movie and Robot Chicken’s Chris McKay. Any of those projects mentioned there should give you an idea of Renfield’s tonal shifts. You can probably also make comparisons to the likes of the 2011 Fright Night remake, and even Deadpool.
Again, that’s all fine if those movies, TV series and comics are to your entertainment taste; but Renfield seems to suffer from a confused focus. The film contains a number of laugh-out-loud moments; these are typically centred on the co-dependency support group that Renfield joins, as well as Awkwafina’s deadpan, incredulous asides. However, the movie’s pace means the spotlight continually shifts away from its dark satirical exploration of toxic relationships and power abuse (which is an engaging topic), to distracting, seen-it-all-before superhero action.
To serve Dracula, Renfield has been given a fraction of the vampire’s powers. All it takes is eating an insect to access abilities like enhanced strength, flight and rapid healing. Maybe the film’s many wirework fight scenes would have been better if they were more coherent, but they suffer from muddled editing which makes things difficult to follow. Then again, barring maybe one thug, all the mob henchmen are indistinguishable battle fodder, so it doesn’t really matter.
In the end, Renfield is a hard one to recommend to a broader audience. You need to enjoy, or at least be open, to a more exaggerated style of entertainment because Renfield doesn’t hold back. The film will definitely have its fans, but it’s not as sharp-fanged as it could have been, succumbing to unnecessary excess and box-ticking expectation. At least, at an ultra-brisk 93 minutes — which is rare for a movie runtime these days — you can experience Renfield’s pleasures with little time commitment. DM/ ML