Midway through Renfield, director Chris McKay’s “direct sequel” to Tod Browning’s seminal 1931 Dracula, the film finally lives up to the potential of its premise—for a brief and glorious moment. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) thinks that he’s freed himself at last from Dracula’s (Nicolas Cage) grip. Up to this point, the legendary vampire has been convalescing from a close call with a monster-hunting priest. Dracula relies on his familiar of a century, Renfield, to bring him fresh blood to aid his recovery. Said familiar, however, has woken up to the reality of his situation. After stumbling into attending weekly co-dependents’ anonymous meetings, he realizes he’s in a toxic relationship with his master. And he wants out. So he decides that he won’t bring Dracula any victims, leaving his boss to languish.
Dracula will not be forgotten that easily. He secures himself a new means of food delivery and revives himself without Renfield’s help. Dracula ambushes his old familiar, who has no idea about his master’s recuperation. The vampire shows up at Renfield’s brightly-decorated new apartment to remind his servant who’s in charge. This confrontation gives us our first glimpse of peak Dracula, and he’s terrifying, overwhelming, and impossible to refuse. But Renfield, after his breakthrough at the support group meetings, remains determined not to fall under Dracula’s spell. Renfield scrambles to retrieve a book he got from one of his meetings, entitled How to Talk to Narcissists. He begins, hilariously, reading passages aloud in a panicky, placating cadence.
The idea that therapy-speak will save Renfield becomes laughable as Dracula backs his underling into a corner. Renfield resorts to shielding himself with the book like it’s a holy relic that will ward off his vampiric overlord. It’s pathetic, humorous, and pointed in a way that most of the film isn’t. This conflict underlines the rich ridiculousness of the movie’s initial proposition. In this moment, at least, the film recognizes that being a vampire’s familiar is not the same as being in a run-of-the-mill abusive workplace relationship. Although Renfield thinks the support group members understand his predicament, their tools can never be sufficient for his particular situation.
If only the rest of the film had followed this perfect scene’s lead. Unfortunately, Ryan Ridley’s unfocused screenplay doesn’t lean hard enough into the absurdity of its central conceit. In fact, it doesn’t seem comfortable committing to the conceit. A half-baked organized crime plot and some generational cop melodrama pad out the relatively lean 93-minute runtime. Even though Renfield comes alive when concentrating on the power dynamic between the title character and the vampire who’s ensorcelled him, the film stops short of treating that bond with any psychological or emotional complexity. The comedic nature of the film doesn’t preclude the possibility of a more sophisticated treatment of this relationship, either. Look no further than Nandor and Guillermo on FX’s What We Do In the Shadows for proof of that.
There are pleasures to be had here, especially of the visual variety. Production designers Julie Berghoff and Alec Hammond create some delightfully bold interiors. In an abandoned New Orleans hospital, Dracula’s creepy lair boasts a genuinely fabulous blood bag throne. Druglord Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) keeps her torture chamber lined with an impressive array of weapons, and the clever set design lets us see them all suspended clearly. Renfield’s apartment signals his new lease on life through its vibrant sunset-pinks and oranges and his adorable, retro fox print sheets and curtains.
Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen utilizes lurid, often complementary-colored neon lighting to exaggerate the film’s atmosphere, notably in the nighttime scenes. (I already mentioned Nandor and Guillermo, but this lighting design also seems heavily influenced by What We Do in the Shadows.) An early sequence, which lovingly recreates shots from Browning’s Dracula with Cage and Hoult, stands out as a technical marvel and a nerdy joy.
The performances, too, are solid. Cage enjoyably chews the scenery as a more monstrous Dracula, aided by a truly ridiculous set of fangs. But the script doesn’t give Cage much room to play. Despite the film being sold as something of a two-hander, Dracula is not the co-lead of this film. That would be Awkwafina’s cop character, Rebecca. She and Renfield form a connection as they both seek to take down the Lobo crime syndicate, each for their own reasons. Contrary to expectation, Awkwafina turns in a relatively restrained performance. The Farewell this is not, but the actress surprisingly taps into her dramatic talents more than her comedic ones here.
Hoult, tasked with carrying the film, does a typically admirable job. In some ways, Hoult’s performance as Renfield seems a spiritual successor to his turn as R in Warm Bodies. In both roles, the actor leverages his natural likability and good looks to make an abject character into a conventionally appealing lead. The problem with Renfield, though, lies with its hesitation to let the title character be even weirder.
Living under Dracula’s sway for a century would do a number on anyone. Other versions of Renfield often emphasize how Dracula drives his familiar crazy. Literally, straight to the asylum. This Renfield, while certainly maladjusted, doesn’t get anywhere near insane. It’s a curious choice, in a film that has Cage bringing his trademark gonzo energy to Dracula, that Hoult never quite gets to tap into his own berserker side. Barely an ounce of that Mad Max: Fury Road fervor comes through. When it eventually does, it’s the best scene in the movie.
Even in the action sequences, where Renfield becomes superpowered via the ingestion of bugs, it’s hard to tell exactly how unleashed the title character gets. We witness him enacting heinous acts of ultraviolence—during one showdown, he memorably rips a man’s arms off and impales two others with those arms—but the egregiously choppy editing leaves precious little room for facial close-ups. One can’t help but wonder what kind of film Renfield could have been if the screenplay had excised the unsatisfactory action element. The ingredients are here for something darker, funnier, and gutsier. The movie we get, sadly, is an unremarkable action-comedy that doesn’t fully deliver on either front. It’s a shame that Renfield makes the conventional choice at every opportunity.