Once every decade or so, an ancient timepiece in Hollywood strikes Dracula O’Clock, meaning that it’s time for everyone to make a new Dracula movie. Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao is presently working on a sci-fi/western adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, and André Øvredal’s Last Voyage of the Demeter, based on a single chapter, is due out later this year. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers has cast Bill Skarsgård in the lead of his upcoming Nosferatu. It is, squarely, half-past-Dracula. First out of the gate is Renfield, a comedy centered around Dracula’s bug-eating minion. Given the necessity of finding some new angle on source material that’s been adapted for the big screen roughly a hundred times, a sideways look at what it’s like to work for Dracula isn’t the worst idea. But it’s not the most original take, either, and Renfield is basically (un)dead on arrival.
RENFIELD ★★ (2/4 stars)
Nicholas Hoult plays the titular Renfield, who has spent most of the past century serving as familiar to immortal vampire Count Dracula (Nicholas Cage). As Dracula’s one and only servant, he’s responsible for doing his bidding during the day, like procuring victims for him to eat and getting his cape dry cleaned. Renfield tries to appease his guilty conscience by feeding Dracula criminals and abusers, but the Count craves innocence, which puts the increasingly reticent familiar in a tough spot. See, Renfield’s been doing some soul-searching ever since he wandered into a self-help group for mistreated codependents, but he hasn’t yet found the strength to stand up to his domineering boss. That is, until the friendship one brave cop (Awkwafina) and a conflict with one unusually multicultural crime family (topped by boss Shohreh Aghdashloo and her useless son Ben Schwartz) convince him to turn his life around and use his Dracula-derived powers for good.
What we have here are all the ingredients for a funny, subversive adult comedy in the vein of The Venture Bros. or Harley Quinn, both of which take established tropes from self-serious genre stories and deconstructs them under the lens of a workplace comedy. Except that product already exists, it’s called What We Do in the Shadows, and it rules. The FX series (based on the film of the same name) has been exploring the toxic relationship between a narcissistic immortal and his good-natured but weak-willed human accomplice for 40 episodes and counting. Renfield is a less clever, less funny take on the same idea. It has little to add to the premise apart from a bigger budget, more ambitious action, and Nicolas Cage.
Having waited his whole life to play Dracula, Cage does not squander the opportunity. The film comes to life whenever he’s on screen, hamming things up as a manipulative and insecure vampire. He’s funny, he’s nasty, he’s menacing, but mostly he’s kind of pathetic in the way that abusers tend to be. While Renfield fills multiple scenes with therapyspeak about toxic relationships, Cage’s performance personifies the concept in a way that renders the jargon unnecessary. (Related: Renfield’s first person narration adds very little and the movie would be better without it.) The rest of the film’s performances are totally adequate. No one’s slouching here, but no one’s on Cage’s wavelength, either, and since he’s only in about 20% of the movie, that leaves a lot of dead air.
Renfield leans heavily into the cartoonishness of its world, not unlike director Chris McKay’s shockingly good 2017 film, The LEGO Batman Movie, but it doesn’t share LEGO Batman’s mile-a-minute, ADHD-kid joke density. McKay dials up the gore to comical extremes, with Dracula and Renfield effortlessly beheading and dismembering foes who gush blood like fire hydrants, but the fun of this is undercut by obvious, rubbery CGI. Save for one really funny, very practical-looking creature effect in the first act, there’s nothing visceral about any of Renfield’s violence. The movie falls into the same trap as a previous Universal monster reboot, 2017’s The Mummy — it feels like a superhero movie wearing a horror movie’s hand-me-downs. But where The Mummy was a disastrous attempt to launch the studio’s Avengers-style Dark Universe brand, Renfield takes its cues from Deadpool. Of the two, Renfield is the far more watchable film, but “more watchable than The Mummy (2017)” is a bar that could be cleared by most movies, subway performers, and car-insurance commercials.
Let’s hope that by the time this Hour of Dracula has ended, we’ll have seen some better offerings than this. Meanwhile, What We Do in the Shadows Seasons 1-4 are currently streaming on Hulu.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.