Directed by Chris McKay (“The Tomorrow War,” “The LEGO Batman Movie”) and written by Ryan Ridley (“Rick & Morty”), “Renfield” stars English actor Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) as Dracula’s bug-eating loyal servant who, in this modern retelling, resembles a cross between a Marvel superhero and John Wick. There’s action and comedy, plus massive amounts of gore, but let’s face it, you’re here to see indie heavyweight Nicolas Cage deliver an over-the-top performance as the archetypal vampire and he’s fangtastic!
Set in present-day New Orleans, an abandoned hospital serves as a stand-in for Dracula’s Transylvanian castle. Renfield (Hoult) is busy collecting bodies to feed his master whose decaying face and frail body indicate the Count is a few quarts low. The gruesome prosthetics by make-up artist Christien Tinsley (“The Passion of the Christ”) recall Rick Baker’s work on “American Werewolf in London.”
It doesn’t help that Renfield isn’t exactly bringing back the best specimens for his boss to feast on, most are thugs with missing limbs, and one corpse is headless. Dracula insists, “I want innocent victims,” specifically “a handful of nuns, a busload of cheerleaders!”
Born Robert Montague Renfield, the titular vampire’s assistant, explains (in voiceover narration by Hoult) how his greed led to the deaths of his wife and child and a centuries-long servitude to Dracula. But this is 2023, where identity and self-esteem are hot topics. Renfield begins attending group therapy where he realizes that he’s in a codependent relationship with his narcissistic boss. He decides to invest in some “me-time” by clothes shopping at Macy’s, reading self-help books, and moving into a studio apartment.
Awkwafina enters the picture as Rebecca, a police officer whose father, a seasoned veteran on the force, was killed by the Lobos, a local drug cartel run by Ella (wonderful Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her hothead son Teddy (Ben Schwartz).
Rebecca may be the only honest cop left in the department, which explains how the Lobos operate freely and why they were never brought to justice for her father’s death. Rebecca is on a mission to bring them down so for most of the film the “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” actress is dropping F-bombs while berating her fellow officers while Captain Browning (James Moses Black) attempts to diffuse the situation. In Hollywood, it’s usually the black police superior doing the cursing, so it’s a nice change-up.
Renfield develops a crush on Rebecca after witnessing her bravery while standing up to the Lobos cartel. He saves Rebecca’s life when they attempt to assassinate her in one of the many well-choreographed fight scenes that turn Renfield into a gunless John Wick. After eating insects (which have the same effect as a can of spinach on Popeye) our antihero dodges bullets while ripping thugs’ arms out of their sockets and then using them as nunchucks. The physical comedy diffuses the graphic violence turning the action into a Three Stooges meet The Evil Dead scenario. It’s campy, bloody fun, and a bit ridiculous as Awkwafina grabs a severed arm to beatdown a cartel member.
When news broke last year that Nicolas Cage would be playing the archetypal vampire in a new horror-comedy we all knew that his performance would be over the top. 35 years ago, he ate a live cockroach for the comedy “Vampire’s Kiss” (he called it a business decision), where he wore cheap plastic fangs while cocking his head back with eyes wide open in a tribute to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in “Nosferatu.” Add the claw-like fingers, and the look is complete as Cage steals the “Renfield” spotlight while mimicking his performance in the 1988 black comedy directed by Robert Bierman. By the film’s finale, the always entertaining actor resembles Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of Dracula only with sharper teeth. Two fangs are replaced by a mouthful at the suggestion of director Chris McKay, an ode to Lamberto Bava’s wonderful and gruesome “Demons.”
Cage mentioned James Wan’s “Malignant” as an inspiration for “Renfield” and I do see a bit of Annabelle Wallis’ Madison, not in Dracula but in Hoult’s Renfield, especially the contorted moves in the action scenes.
The exaggerated gore, Cage’s wacky performance, Hoult’s sensitive silliness, and Awkwafina’s brash nature make this horror-comedy, “bloody fun.” Also, Ben Schwartz is terrific while chewing up the scenery as the Lobos’ hothead leader. There are a few slow moments, and some of the jokes bite, but “Renfield” is the perfect mixture of horror and comedy. In other words, it doesn’t suck.
Now showing in theaters