Much more than just an ingenious casting stunt, “Renfield” is a blast — gloriously bloody, relentlessly funny, and wildly entertaining.
Before we sink our teeth into an in-depth review of Renfield, let’s address the toothy elephant in the room.
Is Nicolas Cage’s Dracula the best, most memorable, and ferociously fun part of this film? Absolutely. No question about it. Would this film be remotely as watchable if anyone other than Cage donned that iconic top hat and cape — or that snazzy velvet smoking jacket? Almost certainly, no.
With that said, let’s get another thing clear.
Cage isn’t the only one in this film bringing charm, magnetism, and killer comedic timing. And he’s certainly not the only reason to buy a ticket to this wildly entertaining, exceedingly bloody, genre-bending horror-comedy-action-romance.
If, however, you did buy a ticket just to see Cage camp it up and devour scenery as the Prince of Darkness, it would be money well spent. He’s reason enough to put butts in the seat, and he doesn’t disappoint.
To the credit of director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and writers Ryan Ridley (Rick and Morty) and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), they also know why you’re here.
Sure, this is a film about Dracula’s loyal and long-suffering servant, Robert Montagu Renfield. It’s his story, and the world is seen through his perspective. But it’s his bloodsucking bastard of a boss we really care about.
Fortunately, they don’t hold back on the tasty red meat.
Cage’s Dracula isn’t the star of the film, but he’s much more than just a sideshow attraction.
He’s often front and center, grinning, sneering, and sauntering his way into our hearts with exactly the kind of over-the-top bravado and sinister swagger you want from the immortal Count of Cool.
And whenever he is on the screen, nothing or no one else matters.
That’s not to say, Nicholas Hoult, as the titular character, isn’t outstanding. Cage gives the film its bite, but Hoult gives it its heart. And the supporting cast brings plenty of humor and those all-important human connections we crave, even if it’s a monster we love most.
Early in the film, we’re treated to a clever flashback to young Renfield’s first encounter with Dracula a century prior when he became seduced by the prince’s power and the promises of wealth and success he offered.
Much more than just a loving homage, Renfield takes the bold and creative approach of recreating scenes from Tod Browning’s classic interpretation of Dracula, even digitally imposing the faces of Cage and Hoult onto their 1931 counterparts (Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye).
In this way, Renfield acts as a modern-day sequel to Browning’s story.
It cleverly explores what happens when, one hundred lonely years later, an emotionally battered Renfield becomes disillusioned with doing his master’s bidding while sacrificing every shred of his own happiness.
It’s the very definition of a toxic relationship, a fact that Renfield learns while attending a support group he accidentally stumbled into for people addicted to or unable to break free from co-dependent partnerships.
The shy, mild-mannered Renfield — now a fashionably out-of-step goth Englishman, involuntarily relocated to New Orleans — begins to share with the group details about his complicated relationship with his tyrannical boss.
He leaves out certain critical details, of course, like the fact that his boss is actually the king of the vampires who has transferred some of his power to Renfield, turning him into an unstoppable badass whenever he digests live insects.
In the absence of those facts, group leader Mark (an endearing Brandon Scott Jones) eagerly recognizes signs of a classic narcissist in Renfield’s horrible boss. And he gifts Renfield with a self-help book to help him stand up to his emotional abuser.
Now, this is where the film is likely to polarize audiences, as it layers elements of a crime thriller on top of its cheeky horror-comedy premise.
Your mileage will vary regarding how much these elements and the introduction of Akwafina as a sidekick/romantic interest works for you.
Akwafina plays Rebecca Quincy, a low-level traffic cop who can’t get ahead no matter how capable she is or how much she proves herself. That seems to have much to do with her personal vendetta against the powerful Lobo crime family — the same family responsible for her police offer father’s death.
The family is led by the stylish and sophisticated but ruthless matriarch Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo). They have everyone in their pocket, including much of the police force, leaving Rebecca constantly trying to push against an immovable force with very little success.
Despite being routinely disrespected, she’s whip-smart, tough-as-nails, and morally uncompromised.
So, when the crime boss’s smarmy, somewhat incompetent son Teddy (Ben Schwartz) brings his goons to track her down at a local bar — holding a gun to her head and offering to spare her life if she admits she’s under his thumb — she doesn’t flinch or back down.
Renfield just so happens to be at the same bar scoping out potential victims for Dracula. Inspired by Rebecca’s bravery and refusal to be anyone’s pawn, he springs into action to save her, taking out several of Lobo’s men in the process with his supernatural mojo.
Her act of courage also inspires him to finally free himself from Dracula’s thrall once and for all.
He gives himself a makeover, complete with a sharp haircut and a delightful pastel-striped sweater. He also rents a cute little studio apartment and gives it a cheery makeover in one of the film’s most enjoyable montages.
Soon, things get wildly complicated and incredibly bloody.
Rebecca and Renfield become unlikely partners on a mission to take down the Lobos.
Meanwhile, when Teddy shows up at Dracula’s lair looking for Renfield, Dracula learns of his minion’s betrayal and does not take it well. He offers Teddy the chance to step up and become his new right-hand man, an opportunity Teddy jumps at.
Dracula surprises Renfield at his apartment, and the two have a heated exchange where Dracula explains his new plan for world domination and his determination to take everything Renfield cares about from him.
This scene is a masterclass in acting, with Hoult’s sensitive charm serving as the perfect foil for Cage’s maniacal narcissist.
These two talented actors have so much onscreen chemistry that you’ll wish we had more scenes like this.
Cage shines as a truly formidable foe who also has a penchant for the dramatics, a sharp wit, and a flair for style as he sips blood out of a martini glass and menaces Renfield with the perfect balance of unhinged yet still fully controlled. He’s wounded by the betrayal of his assistant, infusing him with some relatable humanity, but he never lets us forget he’s a fiend at his core.
He’s campy but never cartoonish, funny but always believably threatening.
When Mark from Renfield’s support group glibly reduces such great evil with a pop psychology diagnosis early in the film, it is both silly and reductive, intentionally comical. But there’s no doubt that Dracula is, in fact, a twisted narcissist. In the hands of the gifted Cage, he’s as much a self-absorbed, petty, manipulative child as he is a mass-murdering monster.
As Dracula seeks vengeance with the help of the Lobos, McKay ramps up the insane gore and the enthralling action to an 11.
Even if you aren’t entirely on board with the crime subplot, you may be able to appreciate it as a means to a wickedly satisfying end. It gives the film more bodies to eviscerate in outrageous and horrific ways.
A fast-paced thrill ride, the action in Renfield escalates quickly.
We’re treated to a barrage of cleverly choreographed and comically over-the-top fight scenes, with the kind of acrobatic style delivered by John Wick coupled with copious amounts of ‘80s slasher-style gore.
I can’t impress upon you enough how much bloody fun it is. There’s no attempt at realism here.
It’s meant to be excessive and absurd, keeping the violence palpable by maintaining the whimsy and comedic charm even as limbs are being torn apart, internal organs are being ripped out of bodies, and the red stuff is flowing like Niagara Falls.
It’s especially delightful that much of the carnage is caused by Renfield himself — that sweet, beleaguered, boy-next-door antihero so desperate to be a good guy. It’s a wonderful dichotomy to see him baring his soul in support group one minute and ripping heads off with gleeful abandon the next.
The film also boasts a seriously kickass soundtrack, making these action-fight scenes all the more thrilling.
Ultimately, Renfield is a blast, thanks in large part to a stroke of casting genius.
Nicolas Cage is a self-proclaimed Dracula aficionado, and he’s made no secret about his lifelong obsession with playing the role. Turns out, it was, in fact, a role he was born to play. And he doesn’t dare squander the opportunity.
Cage chews the scenery exactly as you would expect and hope, but he also delivers a nuanced performance that gives the character considerable depth and intrigue. It’s a highly physical performance that relies heavily on Cage’s trademark facial expressiveness, which shines through even during layers of makeup and prosthetics.
It was reported that Cage stayed in character during production, and that’s not really surprising given his unwavering commitment to the role.
He also looks phenomenal, thanks to a stellar makeup and costume department.
But, again, for those afraid that this is just the Nic Cage show, with nothing else to write home about, I assure you that everyone here brings their A-game.
Hoult is just as well cast as his iconic co-star, and he clearly seems to be having a ball with the role.
Not only does he get to flex his considerable comedic chops, but he also gets to showcase his action-star qualities.
No matter how bad he is or what heinous acts he commits on behalf of his boss, it’s impossible not to root for Renfield and be swept up by his affable appeal.
He’s equally effective in selling profound sadness, warmth, humor, leading man likability, romantic charisma, and awe-inspiring physicality.
The scenes of Renfield at his support group are especially charming and witty, and the tonal inconsistency between these scenes and others of bloody mayhem works well to give the film dimension and keep it from ever dragging or feeling dull or repetitive. It also gives the film some emotional gravitas that helps us deeply invest in Renfield’s plight.
The script is smart and witty, and the clever allegory for codependency and abusive relationships is both funny and surprisingly poignant.
Come for the Cage, and stay for the glorious violence, pitch-perfect comedy, and exceptional performances. It’s pretty damn hard not to walk away without a smile on your face.