These days, it’s become quite fashionable to hand a lot of supporting characters from various franchises their own star-making vehicles. Harley Quinn, Saul Goodman, Puss in Boots, Boba Fett…they’ve all headlined movies or shows in the last decade. The latest breakout ‘star’ is, of all characters, Dracula’s weaselly, bug-eating servant Renfield. In the new, big-budget horror/comedy RENFIELD, the vampire’s right-hand man steps into (ahem) the light and it’s a scream. Full of belly laughs and bloodletting, not to mention vivid turns by Nicholas Hoult in the lead and Nicolas Cage as the Count, the film cleverly riffs on both Bram Stoker and Universal’s 1931 movie classic. Along the way, the film gets a bit too sweet when it could use more teeth, but it never ceases to be darkly amusing.
The story starts with Renfield attending a church’s support group, looking for souls who can relate to his servitude, not to mention snatch up ideas on how to rid himself of his toxic relationship. As a woman named Caitlyn (Bess Rous) tearfully testifies about her abusive spouse, Renfield is inspired to help by serving up her vicious mate to Dracula as a meal. Writer Ryan Ridley and director Chris McKay chide both self-help classes here as well as victimization, and the satire sets a great tone for the rest of the film.
Continuing its tart cocktail of comedy and violence, the filmmakers tell Renfield’s backstory by dropping images of Hoult and Cage into scenes from the ’31 classis black and white film a la ZELIG, as well as showcasing all kinds of blood-draining. We’re told that Renfield was once an ambitious real estate lawyer, hoping to make a killing by selling Castle Dracula back in the 20s, but before he can close the deal, the Count enslaves him. Renfield is bitten and gets a portion of Dracula’s super-strength via a mix of vampire blood and the DNA of bugs he now craves to eat. (Yes, there are many shots of Renfield wolfing down creepy crawlies and it’s wholly and humorously disgusting.)
But with the introduction of the main plot, the film starts to lose some of its edge. Renfield discovers after killing Caitlin’s late boyfriend that he was a hitman for the Lobo crime family. Thus, Renfield is targeted by the Lobo matriarch (Shohreh Aghdashloo, purring like a panther), a woman as lovely as she is lethal, and her hothead son Ted (Ben Schwartz), a doofus who’d be right at home on MTV’s JERSEY SHORE. A strong-willed cop named Rebecca (Awkwafina) who’s after the Lobos comes to Renfield’s aid, and slowly but surely, the film starts to become more about his relationship with her than that with Dracula. The focus on the deadly dysfunction between master and servant gets short-shrift as the film creeps into quasi-rom-com territory. Even with a fierce and funny Awkwafina in the role, her part of the story is too earnest for its own good.
Thankfully, Cage keeps it from becoming too sweet. He’s both broad and nuanced, licking his lips like a famished dog, but also gesturing with subtle menace to try and intimidate Renfield. Hoult plays well off Cage, matching his energy, and making his character’s quaking as vivid as his costar’s bombast. At times, Hoult seems to be directly parodying the stammer and hesitancy of his ABOUT A BOY costar Hugh Grant from 2002. It’s a cheeky performance that works as both fool and hero.
The film struggles with some technical shortcomings. At times, the special effects in the film feel cheap and cheesy. Even worse are some clumsy edits clearly employed to gloss over some budgeting compromises. Still, most of the film rollicks along with style and confidence. Despite buckets of blood spurting all about, the violence is so over-the-top it’s never scary. And despite loads of corpses piling up, including a whole precinct’s worth of cops, most of the deaths are played for laughs. All in all, the mischief makes for an enjoyable romp, one rife with menace, but also one that proudly wears its unmistakable heart on its sleeve.