“Renfield” Review: Nicolas Cage’s Uneven Dracula Movie May Drive You Batty

The title character finds himself in a toxic relationship with his boss, who just so happens to be the King of the Vampires.

If the idea of Nicolas Cage sinking his ferocious fangs into the iconic role of Dracula is enough to sell you a ticket to Renfield, then there’s little I’ll be able to say to dissuade you — not that I would necessarily try. Though I would warn you that it’s a pretty mixed bag as far as monster movies go.

Renfield, in case he needs any introduction (and let’s be honest, he does), is Dracula’s manservant, though, in this movie, he’s gifted with the more noble title of “familiar.” When Dracula is nearly killed in the line of bloodsucking duty, it is Renfield’s job to nurse him back to health by bringing the His Royal Highness tasty victims to feed upon. His favorite foods include happy couples, unsuspecting tourists, cheerleaders of any gender, and, of course, nuns. Naturally, fresh blood gives Dracula strength, just as his own blood has the ability to cure wounds and reverse death.

The film takes place in New Orleans, where Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has begun attending a 12-step meeting (led by scene-stealing Ghosts star Brandon Scott Jones) for people in codependent relationships and learning how to defend himself from his narcissist boss, though I’m pretty sure that nothing in the group’s reading materials covers the possibility of one’s abusive employer being undead and all-powerful.

Meanwhile, you’d only know what “codependent” really means if you were in therapy, so I suspect that aspect of the movie will sail over the heads of most audience members. Then again, all they really have to know is that Renfield has been shoveling Dracula’s shit for a long time, he’s tired of it, and he wants out. But I digress.

Renfield movie
Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in “Renfield”/Universal Pictures

Renfield movie

Back to those powers… Renfield has them himself, but in order to tap into them, he has to eat bugs. You know, because Dracula eats people, and humans aren’t on Renfield’s menu. I guess he’s not allowed to treat himself to a nice meal. So whether it’s a fly or an ant or a spider, bugs serve as Renfield’s spinach and give him super strength that allows him to take on not just an entire gang of thugs, but Dracula himself.

Indeed, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the proverbial tree, so Dracula is hardly the only one to fear here, as there is plenty of carnage even when he’s offscreen. I certainly wasn’t expecting Renfield to be so gleefully gory and graphic, with people being beaten to death by their own severed limbs, and heads being knocked off of torsos like something out of Jason Takes Manhattan. It all becomes numbing after a while, though I suppose the blood and guts will make folks feel like they got their money’s worth from this thing.

Director Chris McKay and writer Ryan Ridley (working from a story by Robert Kirkman) both pay glorious homage to the vampire genre while not taking it too seriously, either. Though world domination is mentioned, Renfield is quite deliberately a rather low-stakes affair, pun intended. The choppy editing and cinematography don’t help matters, as it’s hard to get a sense of geography within a scene, and the camera is so herky-jerky, it can be hard to tell what’s going on in any given fight scene.

Cage is clearly having a blast with this role and his boundless energy and enthusiasm are somewhat infectious… the problem is that there’s not enough of him in the film. Cage plays the Prince of Darkness like an old-timey movie star might have, fully going for broke and letting Dracula’s costumes, as well as the character’s ghastly hair and makeup, serve their purpose. As always, Cage leaves no scenery unchewed as Dracula, leaving it all up there on the screen with a winking, arch performance that reminds us why he has endured as a movie star for as long as he has.

Renfield movie
Nicholas Hoult and Awkwafina in “Renfield”/Universal Pictures

Renfield movie

The rest of the cast is solid, too, as Hoult makes for a fine straight man who can also be called upon to sell a joke, while the stoic Awkwafina offers up something a little different than you might expect, as she plays the no-nonsense cop rather than the comic relief this time around. That role is left to Ben Schwartz as Teddy Lobo, the entitled son of a New Orleans crime family run by Shohreh Aghdashloo that aims to team up with Dracula and help him achieve his grand plan of world domination.

The Lobos are local drug dealers who have most of the New Orleans police force on their payroll, whereas Awkwafina plays The Only Honest Cop who’s out to avenge her father’s death by cleaning up the department. She even strikes up a little romance with Renfield, not that it’s believable for even half a second, though that’s easily forgivable.

The movie does its best to take advantage of New Orleans but you never really get the full flavor of the city, as the script is too busy making jokes about ska music, for some reason. Meanwhile, the characters aren’t terribly well written, as they basically behave according to Ridley’s whims, and their dynamic is rarely consistent. Sometimes, it’s hard to see much of a difference between Dracula and Renfield, especially once the latter’s kill switch gets flipped during combat and his animal instincts get the best of him.

If Renfield had focused on embracing its comedic side, McKay might have had something here, or if he had made a straight horror movie, I could see that working too, but this weird genre mash-up strikes an odd tone, and in the end, I felt like Renfield just couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. I’d suggest skipping this uneven horror-comedy in theaters and waiting for it to debut on Peacock, as it’s just not quite as fun or demented as its studio siblings M3GAN and Cocaine Bear, though it would make for a fine tripleheader alongside those other Universal releases. It’s good to see the studio thinking outside the box lately, but some ideas are all in the execution, and Renfield‘s is lacking just a bit(e).

Grade: C+