‘Renfield’ review: Nicolas Cage provides the bite in Dracula comedy

Nicolas Cage (left) and Nicholas Hoult in ‘Renfield.’ Michele K short/universal images

Once every decade or so, an old clockwork in Hollywood Dracula strikes O’Clock, meaning it’s time for everyone to make another Dracula movie. Oscar winner Chloé Zhao is currently working on a sci-fi/western adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, and André Øvredals Last voyage of the Demeter, based on a single chapter, will be released later this year. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers has cast Bill Skarsgård in the lead role of his upcoming Nosferatu. It’s just three thirty Dracula. First out the gate Renfield, a comedy about Dracula’s insect-eating minion. Given the need to find a new angle on source material adapted for the big screen about a hundred times, a sideways look at what it’s like to work for Dracula isn’t the worst idea. But it’s also not the most original version, and Renfield is in principle (un)dead upon arrival.

RENFIELD ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Chris MacKay
Written by: Ryan Ridley
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Nicholas Hoult, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Duration: 93 minutes.

Nicholas Hoult plays the titular Renfield, who has spent most of the last century as an acquaintance of the immortal vampire Count Dracula (Nicholas Cage). As Dracula’s only servant, he is responsible for doing his bidding during the day, such as finding victims to eat and getting his cape dry cleaned. Renfield tries to ease his guilty conscience by feeding Dracula criminals and abusers, but the Count yearns for innocence, which puts the increasingly reticent acquaintance in a difficult position. You see, Renfield has been soul-searching ever since he joined a self-help group for abused codependents, but he hasn’t yet found the strength to stand up to his domineering boss. That is, until the friendship between a brave cop (Awkwafina) and a conflict with an unusually multicultural crime family (headed by boss Shohreh Aghdashloo and her useless son Ben Schwartz) convince him to turn his life around and use his Dracula-derived powers for to use the good. .

What we have here are all the ingredients for a funny, subversive adult comedy along the lines of The Venture Bros. or Harley Quinn, both of which take established tropes from self-serious genre stories and deconstruct them under the lens of comedy at work. Only that product already exists, it is called What we do in the shadows, and it reigns. For 40 episodes, the FX series (based on the film of the same name) has explored the toxic relationship between a narcissistic immortal and his benign but weak-minded human accomplice. Renfield is a less clever, less funny take on the same idea. It has little to add to the premise, aside from a bigger budget, more ambitious action, and Nicolas Cage.

Cage has waited his whole life to play Dracula and is not going to pass up the opportunity. The movie comes to life when he appears on screen and shakes things up like a manipulative and insecure vampire. He’s funny, he’s nasty, he’s menacing, but most of the time he’s kind of pathetic as abusers tend to be. While Renfield fills multiple scenes with therapy talk about toxic relationships, Cage’s performance personifies the concept in a way that dispenses with the jargon. (Related: Renfield’s first-person narration adds very little and the film would be better without it.) The rest of the film’s performances are perfectly adequate. No one is hanging out here, but no one is on Cage’s wavelength either, and since he’s only in about 20% of the film, there’s a lot of dead air left.

Renfield leans heavily on the cartoonishness of its world, similar to director Chris McKay’s shockingly good 2017 film, The LEGO Batman moviebut it does not share LEGO Batmans mile-per-minute, ADHD joke density. McKay takes the gore to comedic extremes, with Dracula and Renfield effortlessly decapitating and dismembering enemies that spew blood like fire hydrants, but the fun of this is undermined by obvious, rubbery CGI. Other than a very funny, very practical-looking creature effect in the first act, there’s nothing visceral about it 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 with the hand-me-downs of a horror movie. But where The mummy was a disastrous attempt to launch the studios Avengersstyle Dark Universe brand, Renfield derives its clues from deadpool. Of the two, Renfield is the movie that is much more watchable 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 is over, we’ll have seen some better offerings than this. In the meantime, What we do in the shadows Seasons 1-4 are currently streaming on Hulu.

Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.

'Renfield' review: Nicolas Cage provides the lone bite in this Dracula comedy

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