Using classic horror genres to explore the deeper issues with our current state of being is nothing new. Ginger Snaps was a great example from 2000 that used the classic werewolf tale to explore the pain and awkwardness of teen women entering new stages of puberty. Dawn of the Dead took a look into our dangerous road into consumerism in the 70s. Now, writer Ryan Ridley (from a story devised by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman) and director Chris McKay have taken characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to take a deep dive into self esteem and manipulative toxic bosses. But does that make for a good movie? Yes!
It has been ages since R.M. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) was first forced into servitude by the dreaded vampire, Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage). Even when he had opportunities to cut the ties that bind him to his wicked master, Renfield gets reeled back in by false promises and sly calculated handlings. Due to the last mishap that almost ended Dracula’s life, they pair have been forced to move. They find themselves in present day New Orleans, where Renfield is having a problem finding the right food for his master. After a run in with some mobsters, and spurred on by his local support group and a police officer he saved (Awkwafina’s Rebecca Qunicy), Renfield might finally find the courage to stand up to his boss and finally break the bonds that keep him held down.
On paper, the premise of Renfield is clever, cute, interesting, and intriguing. Then you throw in Nicolas Cage playing Dracula and you figure, “How can this not be amazing?” It’s easy to mishandle things even if all the pieces are right; but McKay and team have not let the excited public down. The chances of Renfield being a complete mis-fire with overshot expectations and hammy metaphors are very high with films of this ilk. It’s not a masterpiece of film making, but it delivers what it promises in spades.
Kicking off with a history of Renfield’s relationship to Dracula by recreating scenes from the Bela Lugosi starring/Tod Browning directed 1931 feature is pitch perfect and wildly entertaining. The modern day atmosphere, though far fetched at times, fits the Dracula legend perfectly. The action is outrageous, and bloody, and so over-the-top that it feels like the love child of Sam Ramini led Evil Dead flicks and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (Braindead for those outside the USA) inside a Jackie Chan classic. Some of the blood and gore effects are a little too drenched in the world of CGI (think the ending of Blade for a point of reference), but it is nothing that would bring the movie down to a failing grade.
The only real issue Renfield houses is its need to cram in too much story into a short running time. The relationship between master and servant is enough to get this movie off the ground. A nice pat on the back from Officer Quincy should be enough to raise the spirits of poor Renfield. The necessity to stuff an entire side plot about Rebecca’s family history and desire to do right for a specific reason is just too much. It feels more like an afterthought than an actual desire to tell her story. Characters do not need even half a back story to present a sense of drama and complication to their life.
All of the side characters outside out hero and villain seem like they’re plucked out of “The Handyman’s Guide to Movie Side Characters.” Does it lead to us getting some over-the-top antics from Ben Schwartz as he tried to out Cage Nicolas Cage? Sure. Does it help us get the amazing Shohreh Aghdashloo in a type of role we very rarely, if ever, get to see her in? Check. But you can get the same from both of them without the extra complication of dark ties to someone else’s past. Sometimes, just being the bad guy is all you need. Backstories and rich histories aren’t needed.
At the end of the day, Renfield is everything you want. It’s funny, gory, balls-to-the-wall insane; all wrapped around a deliciously full on Nic Cage bringing pieces of Vampire’s Kiss back to life, all while making another brandish performance feel new and alive. You won’t be disappointed by this pretty straightforward delivery of a fairly obvious idea.
Final Grade: B+
Here’s the trailer f the film.