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Movie Review: “RENFIELD” gets most of its bite from Nicolas Cage

Friday, April 14, 2023 | Reviews


Starring Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage and Awkwafina
Directed by Chris McKay
Written by Ryan Ridley

It’s one of the great inevitable castings of the modern movie age: Nicolas Cage as Dracula, and in RENFIELD, he makes the most of it. Now, “most” is a word that could be applied to a lot of Cage’s performances of late, but his Prince of Darkness isn’t just Rage Cage with fangs; rather, it’s a fully defined role that the actor completely commits to. Dracula, over the course of cinema history, has been a vicious monster, a suave charmer, and a figure of fun; in RENFIELD, he’s all three and more, yet Cage is able to wrap them all up into a performance that makes his different sides all of a piece.

The same cannot entirely be said of RENFIELD itself, which is a horror movie crossed with a story of personal actualization crossed with a modern gangster actioner with heavy comedy elements, and the mix doesn’t quite gel. The through-line and initial inspiration is the thread that works best, reimagining Robert Montague Renfield from the traditional bug-eating crazy to a handsome young man (Nicholas Hoult) and eternally youthful “familiar” who has tired of becoming lackey to a “boss” who needs him but doesn’t respect him. A quick opening introduction to the duo’s history (which digitally repurposes footage from the 1931 Bela Lugosi DRACULA to very amusing results) gives way to Dracula and Renfield arriving in modern New Orleans, the former looking much the worse for wear after tangling with some priestly foes (one played by FRIGHT NIGHT’s William Ragsdale, another fun touch).

Renfield’s hunt for “food” to take home to the recuperating Count leads him to a self-help group (where he plans to make victims out of those making life hell for the other participants), but he soon realizes that he himself is in a toxic relationship he needs to get out of. At the same time, circumstances bring him into the orbit of police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who’s on a mission to avenge her father’s death at the hands of the local Lobo crime syndicate, which has what seems to be the entire rest of the force under their thumb. Renfield and Rebecca are kindred spirits, of sorts, and soon it’s the two of them against the Lobos, the corrupt cops…and oh yeah, Dracula, who sometimes seems on the verge of being crowded out of a movie in which he’s supposed to be, at the very least, the second lead.

Cage, however, acts like he’s the movie’s star in his every scene, making Dracula a grandiose, narcissistic creature of the night who also has a way of bringing humor to certain situations without making himself the butt of the joke. His very best scene is a lengthy confrontation with Renfield in the apartment the latter has taken as part of his self-improvement, and the gamut Cage runs from sarcastically teasing facial expressions to full-on, in-your-face gaslighting is a wonder to behold. Hoult matches him beat for beat and in general handles Renfield’s arc from subservience to confidence very well, and Awkwafina brings spirit and energy to the determined Rebecca. On the (human) villainous side, Ben Schwartz tears into the part of the desperate-to-prove-himself Teddy Lobo with relish, and Shohreh Aghdashloo brings delicious, elegant menace to Teddy’s mother Bella–the person to whom he most wants to prove himself.

The whole Lobo subplot, though, keeps threatening to overtake the Dracula-Renfield relationship as the main plot, and it isn’t nearly as interesting. Director Chris McKay and scriptwriter Ryan Ridley, working from a story by THE WALKING DEAD majordomo Robert Kirkman, do their best to tie the two parallel narratives together, but the movie (which runs only 93 minutes) could have used more time to let them breathe, and allow the vampire and his familiar have more time together. RENFIELD has the feeling of a film where some key stuff got lost during editing, as evidenced by bits of a musical/dance sequence on the New Orleans streets that’s excerpted in the trailer and during the end credits but appears nowhere in the movie itself.

Cage’s many fans will still get a huge kick out of his turn here, and horror audiences will appreciate the ghoulish prosthetics, created by Christien Tinsley, the actor wears in the first half (the obviously digital blood in some of the big mayhem setpieces, not so much). RENFIELD largely takes an over-the-top comedic approach to its bloodletting, which helps forestall questions like how a major confrontation with lots of automatic-weapons fire can take place in an apartment-complex courtyard with no apparent collateral damage. Yet the byplay between its title character and history’s most famous vampire is on another level, and it’s a bit surprising and disappointing that that wasn’t allowed to more fully take center stage.