Honestly, Renfield made me laugh out loud so many times that it’s a shame the film’s so wildly uneven, mercilessly flipping between giving me life and making me feel dead inside. The Walking Dead and Invincible writer Robert Kirkman came up with a fresh and funny story about Dracula, told from the perspective of Renfield. Who begins to realize he’s codependent.
There’s a lot of humor to mine from the idea of treating this classic horror relationship like it’s the sort of thing one would speak with a support group about. Indeed, the trailer—which anyone who regularly goes to the movies has seen SEVEN MILLION TIMES now—sells that core conceit well. Community and Rick and Morty writer Ryan Ridley—and, I have to assume, uncreative studio executives—take this idea and… suddenly, add a mob plot?
I do not need a MOB PLOT in my DRACULA MOVIE.
The film opens promisingly enough, with Renfield giving your basic “You may be wondering how I got here” recap of who he is, complete with black-and-white shot-for-shot recreations of scenes from Tod Browning’s Dracula. Which delighted me as someone who had just seen that movie for the first time recently. You get to see Nicolas Cage as Dracula deliver the iconic “I never drink…wine” line!
But don’t worry, the movie is never this stylistically creative again.
Back in present-day New Orleans, see, Renfield listens to his fellow codependents complain about their own Draculas so that he can offer them up to Dracula as victims. This does get him embroiled in the aforementioned mob plot, as does a chance encounter with traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (a nod to the Texan Quincey Morris, who is often left out of adaptations) where he saves a bunch of people and believes he may be able to change his ways. But then Dracula wants to take over the world and…the mob…wants…revenge?
Look, the plot of this movie was just sketched out on a cocktail napkin, and at only 93 minutes, it’s very much just sleepwalking through the idea of what a movie is supposed to look like, utterly and completely weightless.
Every time there was a scene with Renfield or Dracula or the support group, I enjoyed this quirky little thing with a touch of horror, and every time there was a scene with *checks notes* Teddy Lobo or his mafia mamma, I did not understand why any of this was happening. Or why the film expected me to believe that Ben Schwartz was Shohreh Aghdashloo’s son. Schwartz did amuse me at times, and Aghdashloo’s stern demeanor and gravelly voice made her come off a bit vampiric herself, but I…I…just don’t know why. Who authorized this? Who thought we needed this in this movie?
Plus, there’s a subplot with Rebecca and her sister mourning their dead father killed by the mob and also there is police corruption and…why. It’s so completely off tonally from the material in the film that fuckin’ KILLS, like characters having a random hatred of ska or Dracula defensively explaining that he doesn’t care about the gender of the cheerleaders whose blood he desires or the gleefully over-the-top action sequences that treat human bodies like bags of blood.
The Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay shows absolutely no restraint in these scenes and I love it. This film invents its own silly mythology like Renfield getting superpowers from eating bugs, and by superpowers, I mean he has the power to rip people’s arms off and then throw a severed arm so hard that it pierces a man and pins him to a door. For a few minutes here and there, it just becomes a Japanese splatterpunk film except without the glorious practical effects. Lots of CGI blood spraying here!
For the most part, the action is well choreographed and coherently shot, the camera moving in conjunction with the action with only a few occasions where too much editing makes it difficult to follow. Even that much editing stands out when John Wick: Chapter 4 is still in theaters, but John Wick never punched a dude’s head off, so I’ll forgive it.
After seeing Nicholas Hoult excel in recent roles where he’s an entertainingly insufferable prick (The Favourite, The Great, The Menu), I enjoyed seeing him go the opposite direction with more of a Warm Bodies or Mad Max: Fury Road performance, an endearing outcast trying to find his inner strength. Awkwafina is…fine in a super generic role just doing her Awkwafina thing. But I know everyone’s here for bloodsucking Nicolas Cage, who expectedly chews all the scenery as he channels not Bela Lugosi, not Gary Oldman, not anyone that has ever played Dracula but himself, he channels Nicolas Cage. Specifically Nicolas Cage in Face/Off, a vicious egotistical murderer with a hint of regalness.
McKay may not able to give his film a cohesive tone, but I did appreciate that he didn’t forget the horror in this horror-comedy, as despite Cage’s deliberately campy performance, Dracula remains a fearsome figure for most of the film as he slowly grows to full power transforming from a more Nosferatu-like monster to the charismatic count we know and love.
And speaking of growing to full power, Brandon Scott Jones is the MVP of this film as the support group leader—his incredible line reading of “Exactly! He won’t grow to full power! Whaaaat, that’s so weird, why would you phrase it like that, but yes!” delighted me all seven million times I saw the trailer and absolutely DESTROYED the half of my audience who had apparently never seen the trailer.
That’s the thing, there were so many times my audience was in STITCHES that I wish the whole movie had that silly, give-no-fucks attitude. Hell, the climax is a riot and features some clever callbacks to the internal mythology the film has set up, and the final scene brazenly expands that mythology for the sake of a joke, but the film shoots itself in the foot by trying to be a Real Movie when it could have been a really fun one. In the end, Renfield doesn’t suck, but it lacks bite.