Directed by Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie) — Screenplay by Ryan Ridley — Story by Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead).
In Chris McKay’s Renfield, we follow R. M. Renfield (played by Nicholas Hoult) who, a long, long time ago, became the most trusted servant of Count Dracula (played by Nicolas Cage) and thus was granted immortality and the ability to be super powerful if he eats bugs. However, in the present day, Renfield has grown tired of serving his abusive master. In an attempt to find a way to deal with these feelings of exhaustion and depression, Renfield has sought out a self-help group for people in co-dependent relationships. And because he still needs to feed his master, Renfield has decided that he should only feed Dracula the abusive partners that the people in his self-help group complain about. Meanwhile, Renfield is also trying to build a life for himself without considering his master’s needs. When Renfield inadvertently comes into the crosshairs of a significant crime family, Dracula is made aware of his servant’s betrayal and decides to come out of hiding.
One thing that I have really struggled to understand in the lead-up to my finally watching Chris McKay’s Renfield is the title. No, of course, Renfield isn’t a new character. This is a character that is very much tied to the world and lore of Dracula. There really is nothing new about him. And yet, I would bet that the vast majority of people don’t really know who he is. It really feels to me like in trying to zoom in on who the story is actually about, they have forgotten to take into account why people are interested in the movie — that is, obviously, because of Dracula and, in particular, because Nicolas Cage of all people got the chance to play that iconic character. I realize this is a bit of a digression and not a very review-esque comment, but it feels like it needs to be said. That is because, in my region of the world, the film was released two weeks after it had its North American theatrical release, and therefore I already know that this $65 million movie opened to a measly $8.1 million in its opening weekend (and is looking like a box office disappointment right about now). To me, it’s easy to see why. It’s in the title, but, unfortunately, that’s not the only problem with the film. Let’s just say, it’s easy to understand why this film may have struggled when it comes to word of mouth.
I think this is a good example of a hit-or-miss mixed bag of a film. While there are some fun visual gags (e.g. certain transitions, Lugosi-era-esque flashback, and a welcome mat being the thing that allows Dracula to enter a home), too much of the spoken comedy fell flat to me (there’s a recurring joke that feels like something out of the early 2000s, if that). It has a significant amount of action sequences and is rather gory for a comedy, which is a competent but empty element of the film. However, this film also feels a little bit too overstuffed. The fact of the matter is that no one goes to see this film for a story about a crime family and dirty cops, and yet so much of the film is concerned with exactly that when it ought to instead focus on its Dracula stunt casting.
Because the fact of the matter is that Nicolas Cage is absolutely terrific as Count Dracula, as he delivers some really fun Cage-isms. His line delivery is often so over-the-top that he heightens and buoys up every scene he is in. If you want 90s-era Nicolas Cage, then that is exactly what you get here, you just don’t get enough of it because of how the film has decided to expand on the dirty cops and the crime family. Now, why do they do this? I think one of the main reasons — other than the fact that they definitely needed someone for Renfield to fight — is that they wanted to properly build the character that Awkwafina plays. While I like Awkwafina normally, I think it was a mistake to turn her character’s connection with Renfield — Renfield is inspired by her because she is able to stand up to her bully regardless of the consequences — into a romantic one, which never really works, and in building this connection they partly lost sight of the central relationship in the premise, which was the key ingredient that made people want to see it in the first place.
The unfortunate thing about Chris McKay’s Renfield is that even though it has this really exciting premise about Dracula’s familiar seeking therapy, it, ultimately, doesn’t do enough with the premise. Rather than taking the attractive premise in an exciting direction, the film goes for a romance subplot that doesn’t work and a crime family subplot that doesn’t hold your attention. All of this is especially unfortunate because Nicholas Hoult is relatively good here and because Nicolas Cage’s version of Dracula is extremely entertaining to watch. So, yeah, there are things to enjoy about it, but make sure to lower your expectations somewhat because it doesn’t do enough with its great idea.
5.9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.