The infamously OTT actor fails to leave a mark in an uninspired take on the Dracula story that squanders all the potential of its set-up
Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is in a co-dependent relationship with a narcissist. Not just any narcissist, mind you, but Count Dracula himself (played here by Nicolas Cage). After more than a century doing his master's bidding, the pale-faced lackey has finally had enough; he no longer wants to be a servant to a bloodsucking eternal being – he wants a flat and his own life. In short, Renfield is sick of being a monster.
Such a set-up suggests a comedic struggle for the titular fly-eating footman, who was first glimpsed in Bram Stoker's original 1887 novel and has appeared in countless adaptations since. But Renfield writer Robert Kirkman has other ideas. Instead, Dracula's stooge somehow finds himself stuck between a mob leader (Ben Schwartz) and the “one good cop” fighting corruption (Awkwafina). It’s a disappointing change of pace, side-lining what should have been a portrait of a toxic relationship for a drug cartel narrative that is uninventive and unengaging.
It's a shame, especially since Renfield begins by showing some genuine awareness of the cinematic history of Dracula. In a flashback depicting the origins of their abusive dynamic, Hoult and Cage play homage to the performances of Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi from the iconic 1931 Dracula film. Sadly, none of these reference carry forward into the present day.
It isn't long before Cage exchanges Lugosi's characteristics for a more self-referential approach, aping the wacky inflections of his earlier films (such as 1988's Vampire's Kiss). Hoult, meanwhile, shrugs off the lunacy that has made the Renfield character such enjoyable viewing in the past. Gone is the mad look in his eyes, the signature twitch, his habit of gobbling down insects made as mundane as chewing gum. Awkwafina, always an enjoyable addition to any comedic cast, proves strangely unlikable here – she’s left playing an outdated, good cop stereotype that in 2023 feels less believable than Dracula becoming entangled with the mob.
For as long as the vampire has existed in popular culture they've been used as a metaphor for all manner of societal ills and sins of the flesh. And yet despite the rich history that Renfield has at its fingertips, the horror-comedy here proves basic. With its simple notion of good and evil and the reductive therapeutic-style language adopted in the support group Renfield attends, the film becomes a mixed bag of reductive platitudes. Some can overcome their monstrous behaviours; others are condemned to being monsters forever. The opportunity for Dracula to undergo modern society's self-growth trend is never explored, leaving the character feeling flat and without nuance.
It’s disappointing to see Renfield’s potential squandered, given how Dracula's rich iconography might have been wielded for a wealth of referential humour. Anyone setting out for some good old-fashioned bloodsucking will find their thirst disappointingly unquenched. Those looking for blood-spurting fight scenes attempting to rival the combative ingenuity of John Wick might fare a little better. But who goes to a vampire comedy for that?
Renfield is released in UK cinemas on 14 April.Where to watch