Nicolas Cage is Dracula in Renfield, a campy vampire update that focuses on the Count’s put-upon assistant which is now playing in Prague and cinemas worldwide. While the film works best as an offbeat satire, it also offers heapings of over-the-top gore, John Wick-style action, and disarmingly straight-faced commentary on abusive relationships.
This oddball mashup will offend any viewer of refined taste expecting well-executed storytelling, but has enough weirdness going on to recommend to fans of more extreme cinema. It doesn’t really work, but has the kind of go-for-broke Psycho Goreman energy often missing from mainstream cinema courtesy director Chris McKay (Robot Chicken, The Lego Batman Movie).
Renfield isn’t so concerned with Dracula: instead, it stars Nicholas Hoult as the Count’s titular assistant and “familiar” who sees to his needs during the day and brings him fresh corpses at night. Dracula has given Renfield immortality, and ill-defined superpowers he gains when he munches on some bugs, but we never really know why the character feels so indebted to do his evil bidding.
Renfield, too, finally seems to be coming to terms with his unhealthy relationship with Dracula, though a support group for people in codependent relationships. He attends the meetings on the prowl for victims (in the form of abusive partners), but eventually opens up about his own no-good lifestyle with the Count, a classic narcissist.
Strangely, Renfiled also takes place in a mafia-controlled New Orleans run by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Tedward (Ben Schwartz). The entire police department has seemingly been paid off to ignore Lobo drug crimes and murders, save for lone wolf Rebecca (Awkwafina), who tracks Tedward’s involvement in a string of disappearances.
Renfield, of course, happens to come across Rebecca by chance, save her life in a gruesome fight sequence that sees him slice off a man’s arms with a serving tray, and maybe even fall in love. He even shows up at the police department the next day to give a statement.
There’s a lot of heavy plotting and backstory going on in Renfield involving the Awkwafina character, with clues that go nowhere, an FBI agent sister, and the specter of a beloved father hanging over her. By the end of the movie, she has effectively wrestled the narrative away from the titular character.
What does all this have to do with Dracula? Not much. Cage is only in Renfield for about 20 minutes, but his juicy Dracula dominates the film even though writers Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and Ryan Ridley (Rick & Morty) give him next to nothing to work with; this immortal vampire apparently wants to “take over the world,” Dr. Evil style.
Ultimately, Renfield never really gets us to care about its characters or invest in their journey. But it does have a sly wink-wink attitude, a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, an extended fight scene so well-choreographed that it ventures into John Wick territory, and buckets of blood, with faces ripped off, arms torn out of their sockets and used as projectiles, and a pile of bodies so large that it serves as a cushion for a leap from the second floor.
Renfield may not be good cinema, but it is entertaining trash. Moments like Cage’s regenerating Dracula berating the hapless Renfield, requesting gaggles of nuns and busloads of cheerleaders as pieces of his face drip onto the floor, are worth the price of admission alone. Bonus: flashback scenes with Cage superimposed on Bela Lugosi from Tod Browning’s Dracula. Now that’s something we’d all like to see.