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'Renfield' review: Nicolas Cage's vampire comedy kinda sucks


Courtesy of Universal Pictures

 

Early on in “Renfield,” a gory homage and spiritual sequel to the lore of “Dracula,” there’s a hint of promise suggested by writers Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman in how Dracula’s servant (or familiar as they’re called) Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is having an identity crisis about his purpose. Namely a moral conundrum with serving up innocent human beings for supper. Not that this idea is anything new (see “What We Do in the Shadows,” which is funnier and more grounded than anything here), but the screenplay wanted to explore how Dracula, who is played with the utmost gravitas and snarky malice by Nicolas Cage, is a gaslighter hellbent on world domination. “Renfield” captures that idea in spirit, but not before detouring into a mosh pit of nonsensical violence, horrendous dialogue, and a major subplot involving a local crime mafia family that’s led by, er, Ben Schwartz? 


The ultra violence is mildly amusing (as we understand the mechanics of Renfield’s capabilities and how, when he consumes bugs, can temporarily mimic Dracula’s supernatural powers) and the abusive relationship at the film’s core provides moderate forms of watchability, but there’s not much depth to “Renfield” aside from a thin narrative looking for oxygen. Had the movie committed to the ironic campiness teased in the opening, a flashback sequence where Cage and Hoult get inserted into the OG black and white Dracula film, and kept the focus on Renfield and Dracula’s exchanges and internal dilemmas, perhaps there would’ve been more meat on the bone. 


Very early on, we learn Renfield, who has been serving his master for 90+ years, isn’t very happy with his day job. He even attends a support group reminiscent of “Fight Club,” where he finally gets the courage to stand up against his daily, bloodsucking oppressor. That’s a fascinating dynamic, but “Renfield” swerves from an intimate character study into a no-holds-bar gory action feast that sees our main protagonist become a vigilante. Indeed, Reinfield teams up with Rebecca (Awkwafina - funny at times though completely inconsequential), a by-the-books police officer with a chip on her shoulder, to bring down a powerful crime family shepherd by Teddy Lobbo (Schwartz) and it quickly becomes obvious the movie is going to put more effort into a cheap action plot rather than the real bread and butter. Now that sucks! 


It’s a shame, because the only scenes in “Renfield” with any palpable suspense involve Hoult and Cage, two actors who have incredible chemistry. Cage, having a mid-career resurgence in studio pictures after a string of indie and VOD titles, is having the time of his life, outfitted in stylish costumes and authentic vampire teeth prosthetics, chewing up dialogue while director Chris McKay keeps the camera glued to every minor facial reaction. 


Those choices are inspired and welcome, as is the thought of Universal exploring their back catalog of iconic monster films and mining them for new themes, like the mental duress of a servant having an identity crisis. But where’s the version of the movie where Renfield and Dracula explore the 21st century? Could you imagine them trying to use social media? Or sending a tweet? All ideas that are squandered in favor of a witless action comedy with excessive scenes of violence. I’m all about a bloody brawl and showdown, but you need to have stakes. And no, I’m not talking about the ones meant to go through the heart of a vampire. 


Grade: C 


REINFIELD is now playing in theaters. 


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