What if there was a film about Dracula and his assistant who wanted to leave his servitude after centuries of abuse and thankless service? It’s an uncanny combination of themes, ideas, and genres, but Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult just made it work.
‘Renfield’ provides a modern twist to the ever-enduring narrative of history’s most narcissistic boss, Dracula, from the perspective of his downtrodden aide, R.M. Renfield. After centuries of living in the shadow of “The Prince of Darkness”, the once family-man-made-immortal is turned into a bug-eating hopeless husk in dire search of a way out of this “toxic relationship”. He turns to a support group to share his grievances all to tuck his tail and bow his head the moment the demanding Dracula asks him to do something. His efforts for self-growth may seem in vain, but these are small yet significant steps leading him to finally reclaim the life that was taken away from him.
Casting. Cage would not be my first choice for Dracula. And don’t get me wrong, I love the ‘National Treasure’ series, and Face/Off remains to be one of my favorite films of all time (so I know that he can play the role of the maniacal villain). However, Dracula, or any vampire as a matter of fact, carries with them a refined atmosphere that screams sophistication and suave—an aging Cage, maybe not so much.
But despite my doubts, he delivered, showcasing a different take on the vampire lord than what we might expect. Instead of a debonair monster hidden in plain sight, using his grand facade to capture unexpecting victims, we are presented with a decaying Dracula, one that was driven to the bottom by a modernizing society. He is angered and frustrated from the centuries of hiding in the ground from those he believes he should be ruling over. But even more, he is petty and childish, seeking to have his revenge on his beloved Renfield who “abandoned” him. Forget Edward Cullen’s glowing skin, a Dracula more likened to that of Peter Pettigrew of the Harry Potter franchise, with the hunched back, the unsightly nails, and the rat-like behavior is what we’re getting.
Nicholas Hoult as Renfield on the other hand is sheepish and feeble. More often than not, you’d find him struggling to enunciate his thoughts especially when placed in front of more outspoken figures. While these are not the qualities that you would normally expect from a film’s protagonist, the characterization works perfectly for the character of Renfield. He has lost all hope and confidence, driven over the edge by a master that claims he is worthless without him.
He is what the film describes as a “co-dependent”, someone in a toxic relationship who strongly believes that they need the person who is causing them pain. That being said, Renfield’s demeanor is absolutely understandable and relatable even for those who have undergone or are undergoing a similar situation. And his growth to rise above Dracula’s shadow makes it all the more satisfying.
An uncanny yet effective combination of themes, ideas, and genres. Make no mistake, ‘Renfield’ at its core is an action-comedy film. It centers around an absurd master-servant relationship and it doesn’t take itself too seriously the way other films surrounding similar characters often do.
And let’s not forget about the gore. There is a fine line between a disturbing and gut-wrenching execution of gore (Evil Dead), and one that is satisfying (Amazon’s The Boys). ‘Renfield’ falls on the latter. As someone who feels very uncomfortable with gore of the same style as the prior example, seeing Nicholas Hoult punch holes through chests, slice arms off, and stand over a massive pile of bodies was a relatively enjoyable experience.
The outlier. YouTuber Jeremy Jahns touches on this point in his latest review of the film; the subplot concerning Awkwafina’s character, Rebecca, and her desire to hunt down the Lobo crime family to avenge her father seemed out of place and half-baked. Throughout my entire watch, I was constantly thinking about how they would wrap her arc—in a story centered around Renfield and Dracula’s dynamic, a mortal’s quest for vengeance (not even directed at them) just did not seem to fit—it never felt like they resolved it too. It was not intrusive to the film’s main plot so I don’t have that much of an issue against it, but as Jahns mentions, the inclusion of a narrative about the mafia and a corrupt police department made it feel as if there were two films jam-packed into an incohesive mess of a film; with one memorable, the other quite forgettable.
‘Renfield’ is an action-comedy flick, sprinkled with bits of horror and superhero-esque moments, and splattered with a satisfying amount of guts and gore. It’s a worthwhile and pleasant watch that utilizes a widely recognized story for an analogy of one of life’s most relatable phenomena, toxic relationships. It is these creative decisions that make what could be a stale viewing experience of an overused narrative into a breath of fresh air that makes us feel deeply for a character we have no business relating with.
The film’s backstory reads: “Sometimes, your boss can be a real monster. In the case of R.M. Renfield, he’s literally working for one of the most famous monsters of all time. A wildly inventive take on vampire mythology, Renfield stars Nicholas Hoult as the sad, perennially abused henchman of Dracula (Nicolas Cage) who, after dutifully serving his exploitative master for decades, is in the grips of a full-blown everlasting-life crisis. Renfield is unwilling to do Dracula’s bidding any longer but has no idea how to strike out on his own.”
“That all changes when he meets New Orleans cop Rebecca (Awkwafina), a principled officer with some unresolved anger issues, who is determined to bring down the city’s most powerful crime family, led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Tedward (Ben Schwartz). Inspired by Rebecca’s willingness to stand up for what’s right, Renfield begins to imagine a brighter future for himself, one where he might escape the drudgery of his nightly existence and enjoy walking among the living once more.”
‘Renfield’ is directed by Emmy winner Chris Mckay (The Tomorrow War, The LEGO Batman Movie) from a screen story by The Walking Dead and Invincible creator Robert Kirkman and a screenplay by Ryan Ridley. The film also stars Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, Brandon Scott Jones, and Shohreh Aghdashloo.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures