If a film has Nicolas Cage among its cast, it immediately has my attention. When that film has Nicolas Cage playing the gothic lord of darkness, Count Dracula, it has my money, as well. Renfield seeks to breathe new life into the undead character that has ruled the realm of vampires in pop-culture for over one hundred years. As the title suggests, this iteration examines the lore of Dracula from the perspective of his dedicated servant. And as you may have suspected, despite it being a supporting role, Nicolas Cage steals the show with a performance as eccentric and delightful as we’ve come to expect.
Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is Dracula’s long-time partner in crime; however, these days, that partnership is feeling a bit more one-sided. As the undead overlord’s “familiar,” he acts as a servant. He fulfills the vampire’s every need, including providing Dracula with fresh victims to devour as he works to return to “full power.” But once Renfield comes to the realization his relationship with his master is unhealthy and toxic, he fights to break free from the bond that has devoured his life for years.
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If anybody could give us a modern, humorous take on Dracula, it would be director Chris McKay. The filmmaker previously brought us The Lego Batman Movie, so he knows a thing or two about reinventing iconic characters with a comedic twist. Especially when those characters have a proclivity for black wardrobes. Of course, this isn’t the first Dracula spoof to emerge from the coffin. Comedy legend Mel Brooks teamed up with Leslie Neilson (The Naked Gun) to give us Dracula: Dead and Loving It nearly thirty years ago. While that film was a superbaby silly deep dive into juvenile absurdism, Renfield takes a more nuanced look at co-dependency, manipulation and toxic relationships.
Based on McKay’s track record I was expecting the comedy — The Lego Movie film’s are hilarious — but I wasn’t expecting the gore. At least not to this level. Renfield is at its best when it leans full throttle into explosive levels of blood and dismemberment. The violence feels so unique and out of place for a film that is otherwise relatively light, and that’s exactly why it works so well. The images and sounds of blood-spattered faces screaming in pure agony as they meet increasingly preposterous deaths is, without a doubt, the most effective farce in the film.
It’s no fault to Hoult — he’s a fine actor delivering a solid performance — however, something didn’t click between me and the character of Renfield. With the exception of his sudden revelation about the nature of his one-sided bond with Dracula, the character lacks any significant development or substance. He’s the titular character and yet his role consists of little more than two traits: 1. When he eats bugs he get’s powers (admittedly the use of those powers make for some pretty great scenes.) 2. He wants to end things with Dracula, but he’s scared.
If you would have asked me which I thought would make a more compelling and interesting character to watch, a zombie who finds love (as Hoult played in Warm Bodies), or a super-powered mortal trying to free himself from a toxic relationship with world’s most infamous vampire, I would have guessed that latter. No hesitation. I would have been wrong. Still, Renfield succeeds in bringing a fresh take to an old legend with some amazing performances, good laughs, and buckets of blood. A satire that (mostly) lands the laughs and delivers a serious bite.
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