Chris Mckay’s Renfield is clearly steeped in admiration for its source material, frequently tapping into the zany mythology that underpins it. Yet, that passion is never buttressed with confidence. Its premise co-penned by Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman (who takes on a “story by” credit)— which centers on Dracula’s loyal and tortured servant (dubbed a “familiar”) who is finally ready to take charge of his own life after a century of servitude to the world’s most toxic boss— is a fresh take on an age-old IP. Yet, its execution wholly lacks bite, never sinking its fangs deep enough into its clever concept while still managing to suck it dry of its most interesting elements.
It’s torturously on-the-nose, constantly overexplaining itself and rife with head-scratching inconsistencies that are the result of a script so cobbled together, it’s practically made from the bones of other cliched stories. Part action-comedy, part gothic horror, and part buddy-cop movie, Renfield marries the most obvious parts of those genres into one forgettable whole— all wrapped up in a brisk 93-minute runtime that somehow still feels stretched thin.
What exacerbates the wasted potential are the even more wasted central performances, which include the perfect stars to land such a delectably campy concept. Nicolas Cage was practically born to play the blood-sucking count, channeling Bela Lugosi’s iconic inflections while still adding his own unique, oddball charm. Making a seemingly one-note character anything but. Nicholas Hoult, as his docile but amiable underling is equally brilliant, wonderfully grounding his portrayal in great tragicomic sensibilities— which is especially vital given his character is tasked with delivering fresh, pure humans for his overlord’s nightly feast. But Ridley’s script is so unwieldy from the get-go that Cage and Hoult stand little chance in propping up its messy, hobbling proceedings.
Renfield opens strong enough, with a riff on Universal’s golden age of monster movies that still manages to pack a modern bite (one of the few the film lands), intercutting between a subdued, witty support group session in which Renfield realizes he’s a “co-dependent” that is caught in a toxic relationship. Yet, in the same breath, it bafflingly transitions into a film about a short-tempered traffic cop, Quincy (a serviceable Awkwafina), who is hellbent on taking down the mob family (led by a competent Ben Schwartz and a forgettable Shohreh Aghdashloo) that killed her father. This haphazard mashup, virtually held together by the bits and pieces Dracula feasts on, is sure to make audiences shudder with the fear they walked into the wrong movie.
It’s only in moments where Renfield takes an active step in separating himself from his master, to establish a semi-normal existence, does the film begin to charm through its muddled storytelling. This effect is readily apparent in the early therapy sessions and a jovial second-act makeover montage, which burst with a vitality that the rest of the experience is sorely lacking. Instead, Mckay and company opt to stuff the narrative with a toothless cacophony of bloodshed. The bombastic gore, fueled by an asinine amount of CGI blood, quickly overstays its welcome, unearthing diminishing returns as it continues to trudge on. While some of the gruesome kills are clearly inventive, they are rarely built upon, with the gorefest repeating the same beats of dismemberment and exploding heads until it, shockingly, becomes mundane.
As the film enters its third act, where Renfield and Quincy’s archetypical cop with daddy issues team up to take down the Lobo Gang, which unsurprisingly partners with Cage’s devilishly fun Dracula, it shifts focus to a buddy dynamic that noticeably lacks chemistry (Though Hoult and Awkwafina desperately try to cement a spark). While the two get closer, as they gear up for one last blood-drenched clash, the film runs out of cards to play, mightily struggling to revamp its soulless action fare and wooden narrative stakes (pun intended).
Always serviceable, rarely remarkable, Renfield is nothing but an amalgamation of occasional laughs. Cage is as delightful as ever and Hoult, though hampered by a listless script, is fantastic as the eponymous lackey. Moreover, witnessing an array of henchmen be impaled by amputated arms will always be a hoot. Yet, McKay’s execution of these insane ideas is utterly lifeless, tightly bound in a coffin of tired takes. What remains is a would-be clever concept that courses with hot air, instead of delicious warm blood.
– Prabhjot Bains