Renfield Synopsis: Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the tortured aide to his narcissistic boss, Dracula (Nicolas Cage), is forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding. However, after centuries of servitude, he’s ready to see if there’s a life outside the shadow of the Prince of Darkness.
The dysfunctional bond between nefarious Dracula and his dutiful servant Renfield receives a modern redux in Renfield.
Flipping the perspective of a Dracula story is conceptually promising on paper. The iconic character is a menacing figure as old as time itself, featuring a vast library of films steeped in horror, romanticism, humor, and even blockbuster spectacle (2014’s underrated Dracula Untold). For the studios inevitably returning to Dracula’s mythology well, they best infuse some new ideas to stand out.
Renfield attempts to define its imprint on the iconic vampire with an intriguing mesh of horror-comedy sensibilities. I give the project points for effort, but Renfield ultimately succumbs to its lack of bite.
There are glimmers of promise worth celebrating here. Focusing on Renfield as a hapless victim of a toxic relationship is a solid starting point for Ryan Ridley’s screenplay. When the material connects, Ridley paints clever avenues for submerging Renfield and Dracula into the practices of our modern society (Renfield regularly attends help group meetings while Dracula becomes inspired to use his villainy as a mobster of sorts). I also appreciate the film’s attempts at walking a tricky tonal balancing act, indulging in goofy pratfalls one minute before a chaotic rain of blood-soaked sequences explodes onscreen the next. I’ve always enjoyed sardonic B-movies that discover a sense of levity within their onslaught of violence.
If only Renfield could follow through on its ambitions. Similar to another Universal-produced genre film from this year, the dreadful Cocaine Bear, Renfield feels more like it’s imitating a stylistic identity rather than fully executing it. The experience resonates as a studio-manufactured product – one that props up tired gimmicks and played-out tropes over trusting the appeals of its premise.
For every promising idea Ridley’s screenplay concocts, there are a series of threads that ignite little interest. Charismatic co-stars Awkafina and Ben Schwartz find themselves squandered in a busy crime subplot that reads like reheated leftovers from an entirely different movie. In turn, the actual narrative focus of Renfield overcoming Dracula’s toxic control receives little exploration. Ridley paints the dynamic with simplistic platitudes and ineffective jokes, wasting the talents of star Nicholas Hoult and a very committed Nicolas Cage as the villainous Dracula in the process. It’s a bummer that Renfield never builds upon the promise of its premise.
Chris McKay’s direction showcases similar unevenness. McKay’s usage of eye-popping practical effects that explode with gory glee is a nice touch, although his action beats here are mostly ineffective. An overuse of slick action movie gimmicks, like rampant quick edits and awkward slow motion, eventually becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit to the violent mayhem. The generic setpieces are made worse by McKay’s inability to establish a firm hold of his material. Renfield’s breathless 93-minute runtime endures frequent instability, often stumbling from explosive setpieces to goofy pratfalls without forming cohesion in its tonal identity (I would not be surprised if the studio heavily trimmed down the film in post-production).
Renfield works in spurts yet never finds its groove. The film’s intriguing vision eventually gets sidelined by studio-mandated inclusions and a general failure of nerve.
Renfield is now playing in theaters.