Dracula's assistant is the subject of Renfield, but it's the vampire who steals the show. Isn't it just typical of him to do something like that? Then again, the point of the movie is to depict how the beleaguered henchmen strives to escape the considerable shadow of his bloodsucking boss. Nicholas Hoult plays Renfield, a regular attendee at a support group for people trapped in toxic relationships. The others are dating narcissists or control freaks. His situation is completely different, yet somehow exactly alike.
Dracula (Nicolas Cage) needs a constant stream of fresh victims to feast upon. Renfield is tired of providing them. Motivation to change comes in the form of New Orleans cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). She's trying to take down a local crime family headed by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Teddy (Ben Schwartz). They have half the cops in the city on their payroll, making accountability difficult. Renfield inadvertently gets in the middle of a confrontation between them, finding himself attracted to Quincy. Once old Drac figures out his slave is looking to jump ship, he decides punishment is in order.
The story in Renfield isn't particularly deep, nor does it have much of value to say about toxic relationships. It's mostly an excuse for quirky humor and gleefully bloody action scenes. That proves enough for 92 minutes of fast-paced fun. Renfield gets super-strength from eating bugs. Before each fight sequence, he downs a few, then begins ripping his assailants' limbs off, stomping on their heads, and so on. Director Chris McKay stages these moments stylishly, infusing the gory violence with enough humor to make us laugh rather than wretch.
Hoult is very effective in conveying Renfield’s intimidation around his master and how he grows to recognize a codependent dynamic. The actor also has an appealingly off-kilter chemistry with Awkwafina. They play up their characters' differences while simultaneously suggesting something within that draws them close. As terrific as they are, it's Cage who walks off with the film. His manic energy and over-the-top theatrics are perfect for Dracula. He's hilariously menacing, or menacingly hilarious, depending on how you want to look at it.
Ryan Ridley's screenplay has a number of witty lines and clever jokes, delivered with finesse by the cast members. McKay surrounds them with a visual look that often pays tribute to the classic Universal monster movies. Since the film is in color, he utilizes green lighting to replicate what shadows look like in black-and-white. A few shots are specifically designed to have Cage resemble Bela Lugosi in the original 1931 Dracula. Small details of that sort will be appreciated by genre fans, as they show how much love the cast and crew have for those vintage works.
Because of its short running time, the movie could have fleshed out the Renfield/Quincy romance more. Similarly, additional scenes between Renfield and Dracula would’ve made the codependency theme resonate to a greater degree. As it stands, though, Renfield is a zippy horror-comedy that has a good time playing with the conventions of Bram Stoker’s vampire tale.
out of four
Renfield is rated R for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout, and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.