April 12, 2023
The last time we saw Count Dracula, he was given a dark and gritty reboot (I say that in a backhanded tone) in Dracula Untold. It was a vain and half-assed attempt by Universal to set up their “Dark Universe,” which also included the entirely forgotten The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. For all the talk about the MCU starting to falter in Phase 4, you still have to give Kevin Feige credit for keeping the ship afloat and thriving for so long, as everyone else can’t even seem to hoist the sails.
But at least that curse put upon Universal came with a blessing for audiences, as it forced the studio to think a little more imaginatively with their famous monsters. Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss, took that ludicrous premise and turned it into a story about trauma (before it became an overused buzzword throughout the pandemic). And now we have Renfield, the story of Dracula and his servant in the modern-day, overflowing with buckets of blood, as well as a few laughs for good measure.
Nicholas Hoult plays the titular character, who was coerced into becoming the “familiar” (a nicer term for “slave”) for the Prince of Darkness (Nicolas Cage) way back in the 1930s, when he visited Dracula’s castle in hopes to make a real estate sale. An excellently crafted 4:3 black-and-white recreation of the 1931 original movie, complete with Hoult and Cage in period-accurate makeup and acting styles (I wished the whole movie was like this), gives us an introduction to this power dynamic. But while the world has changed drastically in the 90 years since, the relationship between the two of them has stayed the same. After an ambush by vampire hunters (sorry, Van Helsing is not with them), the two of them have been forced to relocate to New Orleans, where Renfield must find more victims for his master to feed on so that he may regrow to full power. But decades of killing innocent people for an evil dark lord have started to wear Renfield down. He decides he wants to do some good, which he gets an opportunity to do when he finds himself in the middle of a war between an honorable cop (Awkwafina) and the son (Ben Schwartz) of the most violent crime family in the city.
Director Chris McKay, who brought us The Lego Batman Movie (fun!) and The Tomorrow War (boring!), goes for an action-comedy tone here. Renfield acquires powers similar to Dracula when he eats bugs, allowing him to execute goons with superhuman levels of brutality. The humorous attempts at extreme gore make more sense once you realize the idea for this story comes from Robert Kirkman, creator of the other ultra-violent comics (and subsequent television series) The Walking Dead and Invincible. The action scenes are filmed with pulpy flair but are undercut by excessive use of CGI instead of practical makeup, which is made even more disappointing since it’s already being used to perfection on Cage as his mangled body slowly heals from its wounds.
Ryan Ridley’s script also has issues finding a healthy middle ground, with the attempts at digging into toxic relationships being too shallow, and the comedy being too on-the-nose. Renfield’s narration mostly just repeats what we already learned visually, and characters repeatedly spell out the plot and their motivations in expository dialogue.
But most of those missteps are forgiven thanks to the movie completely delivering on its simple promise of seeing Nicolas Cage playing Count Dracula. Whether it’s flesh or the scene itself, Cage is always chewing on something through his extremely committed performance. He’s having an infectious amount of fun in the role, letting out his trademarked hoots and hollers between moments of extreme violence. If this movie achieves nothing else, I hope it inspires Cage to become this generation's Christopher Lee for the character, reprising him again and again in some (hopefully creatively inspiring) future iterations.