Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. Carlos Villarias and Pablo Alvarez Rubio. Frank Langella and Tony Haygarth. Klaus Kinski and Roland Topor. George Hamilton and Arte Johnson. Gary Oldman and Tom Waits. Leslie Nielsen and Peter MacNicol. When adapting Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula, most filmmakers choose to include the Count’s human servant, R.M. Renfield (Hammer’s Dracula series is a notable exception). Slavishly devoted to Dracula in the hopes of gaining immortality, the Renfield of the novel is a tragic figure who eventually tries to derail Dracula’s plans and is killed for his trouble. This plot point is typically carried over to film adaptations. In Chris McKay’s new film, Dracula (Nicolas Cage) and Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) have survived to the modern age and Renfield is now starting to have his doubts about his master. It’s an interesting concept, terribly executed. Renfield is one of the worst films in recent memory.
In a clever opening, the characters are introduced by placing Cage and Hoult in grainy black and white footage in scenes straight from the 1931 Tod Browning Dracula. The film then cuts to a scene of Dracula fighting a group of vampire hunters, with Renfield eventually aiding Dracula after the vampire is exposed to sunlight and catches on fire. Renfield explains via voiceover that this has become the cycle of their life. Dracula gets greedy and draws too much attention, he is hunted and injured, and Renfield must set them up in a new town while the heat dies down and the vampire heals. Their most recent stop is New Orleans. The sequences immediately following this include the only other primary positive of the film. Dracula is shown in various stages of healing in a series of amazing practical makeups from makeup artist Christien Tinsley and his team. To accelerate healing, Dracula needs blood, and lots of it. In his search to find this, Renfield connects with a self-help support group, and decides that he can help these people by feeding their monsters (bad boyfriends, etc.) to his monster. While attempting to do just that, Renfield crosses paths with Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), the wild child son of a local crime family. After Renfield brutally/accidentally kills Lobo’s enforcer, Lobo flees. He comes to a DUI checkpoint operated by Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a beat cop whose father was killed by the Lobo family. She arrests Teddy, but he is soon freed by the family lawyer (a cameo from horror star Caroline Williams). When Rebecca and her partner visit a local restaurant following up on some evidence, Renfield is also there. Teddy and his goons appear, and Renfield and Rebecca save each other’s lives in the process of stopping the attack. This opportunity to be a hero leads Renfield to believe that he can atone for his past misdeeds in service of Dracula, and he vows to be a better person. Dracula has no intention of allowing this, as he slaughters Renfield’s support group friends and partners up with Ella Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and the rest of the Lobo family in hopes of taking over the world.
While it is using classic horror characters as a springboard, Renfield is not a horror film. It would likely be classified as an action-comedy. The problem with that classification is that it fails on both counts. Director McKay (The Tomorrow War, The Lego Batman Movie) shoots the action in frenetic close-up, using the varying speed technique so popular in modern action. It is cartoonishly bloody, but not interesting or exciting to watch. The film also takes frustratingly little advantage of a New Orleans setting. The bland exteriors and dull hospital and police station interiors could have taken place anywhere. New Orleans has great filmic history with horror generally and vampire films specifically which should have been used to Renfield’s advantage. And most unfortunately, the comedy is rarely funny. This is screenwriter Ryan Ridley’s first feature script, though he has an impressive resume of TV writing (Community, Rick & Morty, Invincible). In a 93 minute film, I can count three laughs. The first was of recognition at the use of the old Dracula footage style in the film’s opening. The other two both came from wonderful line deliveries by Jenna Kanell, playing a member of Renfield’s support group. The film is otherwise playing as a strange mix of parodying self-help axioms while also seeming to accept them, and falling victim to beating a joke to death, such as the multiple references to ska music. It’s also packed with multiple crime film cliches anytime the Lobo family is involved.
The acting in the film is a true mixed bag. Hoult is good at conveying the character’s tortured history and moral quandary. He’s charming and deserved a better film. Awkwafina, who has been very good in other films like Shang Chi, seems lost here. Her deadpan style doesn’t fit the crusader for justice nature of the part, and she’s doing an odd, plodding physical performance which is distracting. Ben Schwartz, who can be very funny, is just bad here, in an annoyingly underwritten part. Much of the draw of the marketing of the film was Cage as Dracula. He is fine, in full over-the-top villain mode, but most fans of the actor will find this a disappointing comparison to his strange, manic performance in his other vampire film, 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss, which was one of the actor’s best. When Renfield hits streaming or video on demand, check out those promising first ten minutes for the Browning-style footage and the awesome Christien Tinsley makeup, and then turn it off and watch any other Dracula movie.