Robert Renfield is a timid little man in an abusive relationship. He serves his master Dracula by acting as his caretaker. But instead of doing simple errands like grabbing his groceries or depositing Drac’s money in the bank, he seeks out innocent victims for him to feast upon.
Renfield and Dracula have a relationship quite similar to Ramsay Bolton and Theon Gravejoy/Meek, and the equivalencies can even be applied to Joker and Harley Quinnzel. With Nicolas Cage as Dracula, the role is a gaslighting abusive master towards his forever servant, and Renfield wants his agency as a person. And just like the Harley Quinn Animated Series, he pushes back against his abuser, leading to over-the-top comical violence and an abundance of clever humor. That said, not everything works in this comedic take on Dracula.
[Warning: Light Spoilers and Impressions from Renfield are below!]
Renfield – the story
The film primarily centers on the centuries-old relationship between Robert Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) and Dracula (Cage). The film does a decent job of explaining the backstory of these two supernatural men. Renfield describes how Dracula almost bit the dust numerous times, but Drac’s influence over Renfield keeps the fierce vampire alive. In some ways, Renfield is Dracula’s protector, not vice versa.
Cut to the present day, and Dracula is still regenerating from a near-death experience, and he requires the blood of innocence to become himself again. We see the vampire in an abandoned hospital, deformed, being fed by many hospital blood bags. But Dracula has exquisite taste as he demands a specific type of victim.
This leads Renfield to follow a potential kill to a support group meeting for emotional and physical abuse survivors. At the meetings, Renfield decides to hunt for the abusers as bait. Leading him to a drug exchange, causing Renfield to get caught up with the Lobo crime family, run by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Tedward Lobo (Ben Schwartz). Then there is Rebecca (Awkwafina), a police officer swimming in a sea of corrupt cops and dead set on destroying the Lobos for destroying her family.
Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage are bloody wonderful
Renfield shines most when it focuses on the relationship struggle between its two leads. Ryan Ridley’s script (drafted from a concept by Robert Kirkman) does a terrific job getting the viewer to care about Renfield, establishing a vulnerability to the henchmen.
Not to mention, Cage’s theatrical performance as Dracula is precisely what one would hope from the eccentric actor. Cage does a tremendous job of balancing the unpredictable terror of the iconic vampire and establishing strong comedic timing. And when the film is about Renfield and Dracula’s break-up, it’s wildly fun.
Subplots that bite with dull fangs
The weakest element of Renfield surrounds Awkwafina’s character Rebecca. The Farewell actress is done a huge disservice to her subplot throughout the film with undercooked relationships and backstories. She is said to be dealing with a lot of police corruption, but the film is hardly interested in fleshing out the corrupt cops around her. There are moments where Rebecca explains that she and her sister have a tense relationship–none of this is genuinely felt in the film. Brief bits of dialogue hint at tension, but it’s rushed due to the film’s brisk 90-minute runtime.
And because of this, each time the film shifts to her story, the experience becomes sluggish because there’s not enough established for us to care about. This also makes some of the finale feel void of stakes. Additionally, it’s confusing whether Renfield and Rebecca are flirting or just friends at various moments, and if Rebecca is falling for Renfield, none of it is earned.
Renfield has hilarious action and over-the-top comical gore
Renfield derives his power from eating bugs. Upon consumption, it’s like Popeye eating spinach, and he becomes capable of insane violence. When this happens, the action in Renfield is absolutely bonkers, with fight scenes involving cartoonish bloody gore. Arms get ripped off, bodies get kicked in half, heads pop like balloons, and it’s all executed to hilarious effect. The film utilizes clever gags in the vein of Jackie Chan; for example, there is a prop fight using chloroform that is both comedic and stylish.
A small fuss stems from the coverage of the action. Various sequences bring back the Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) shaky camera, where it becomes difficult to get a sense of the choreography. In the age of films like John Wick: Chapter 4, filmmakers need to remind themselves to “zoom out.”
This Universal monster film is a gleefully gory live-action cartoon
Before helming The Tomorrow War, director Chris Mckay previously guided spazzed-out animated efforts such as The Lego Batman Movie and television shows such as Robot Chicken. It becomes sensible if one considers Renfield a 90-minute live-action Robot Chicken segment. It’s easy to picture a Dracula action figure being voiced by Nicolas Cage in the whacked-out portions of the Adult Swim series.
The tone, the action, and the slapstick-style gore all have the sense of a filmmaker who worked on animation first. If anything, this is the closest one will get to a Harley Quinn Animated Series adapted to live-action. The violence, the comedy, and even the main story are almost the same from the beginning of the first season, and Renfield is just Harley trying to find his autonomy.
Some undercooked subplots and characters bog down Renfield. Even so, Chris Mckay’s latest film has enough to make it a fun watch. The violence is top-notch wacko, Nicolas Cage is hamming it up as the infamous Dracula, and the film is genuinely funny. Plus, as viewers, we know Renfield deserves better. Like Taylor Swift, we know “All Too Well,” men like Dracula suck.
My rating for the film:
★★★ / ♥♥♥
Renfield arrives in theaters on April 14th. Are you going to be seeing it? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out Vin’s series on upcoming Vampire films!