Renfield Offers More Bite Than the Buzz Implies
By Jonas Schwartz-Owen
The action-comedy-horror hybrid Renfield opened a few months ago to middling reviews and poor box office. But with fresh eyes, audiences will find director Chris MacKay has helmed a fun, boisterous homage to the old Universal creepers of the '30.
In modern time, the bug-munching familiar Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has reached the breaking point with his master, the count Dracula (Nicolas Cage). He finds solace in a co-dependence therapy group and finds a way to serve two masters (his boss and his conscience) by offering the vampire the necks of classmates' abusers. Renfield clashes with the city's overlords, a crime family led by the elegantly vicious Bellafrancesca Lobo (Academy-Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her idiotic, narcissist son (Ben Schwartz). Renfield teams up with a struggling anti-corruption cop (Awkwafina) to bring down the family. However, being pure evil, Dracula has no interest in sloppy seconds and chooses to go full rampage by exploiting the crime family to his own advantage.
Director MacKay and the three writers (Ryan Ridley, Robert Kirkman, and Ava Tramer) all come from the comic book adaptation and adult-animation worlds of The Lego Movies, The Walking Dead and Rick and Morty, amongst others. The chaos and extremity of the fight sequences are all part of the film's charm — but they also highlight its limitations: Body limbs are utilized as sharp weapons, heads explode, necks are ripped apart, which leads to a campy style that also distances the audience from the action. The creators, though, subvert the audience's assumptions, particularly in the climax, where fake outs, musical manipulation, and some innovative choices have the audience looking to the left, only to be sidestepped from the right. Audiences beg to be surprised by filmmakers and Renfield does a great job of twisting expectations.
Another issue with the script is, unfortunately, it crosses into a well-soiled territory of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's inventive What We Do in the Shadows, which also targets the fragile relationship between a familiar and his masters. As a result, what may have felt fresh a few years ago, now feels like an also-ran. The use of voiceover sets a comic tone, but also becomes so superfluous that the film may have flowed better without it.
The filmmakers give their protagonist a power-up token similar to the video game heroes like Mario Bros, which ingeniously factors into the Dracula legacy. Renfield here doesn't eat bugs because he's a sniveling human rodent (as in the original lore), but to give him super-human strength — a clever conceit that's utilized well throughout the film. Also, in the introduction, MacKay mimics famous shots from the Tod Browning film with Hoult and Cage subbing in for Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. Side by side, those shots are precise and let the audience know the director has done his homework.
The cast is perfect. Hoult always makes an earnest protagonist and he's winning as the slave desperate to free himself from the evil deeds he's forced to do. Cage, a master ham, keeps those instincts at bay and gives a frighteningly pathological portrayal of the ultimate bloodsucker. He chills the blood with his amorality and never winks at the audience. Awkwafina is always a blast, and she gives humanity to her role. Plus, unlike EVERY cop in every television show and movie who chases a driver on foot and then attempts to shoot at the windows to stop the car, she SHOOTS the TIRES!!! I've lost more iPhones throwing them at the screen on episodes of The Rookie or 9-1-1, demanding "Shoot the tires" that it was a rush to finally see someone make that smart decision. Ben Schwartz, who has built a career on as the sleezy opportunist on TV comedies like Parks & Recreation, eats the scenery as the cowardly, self-involved bully who shoots off his mouth then hides behind his powerful mommy. Aghdashloo brings surprises to every role she plays and here she gleefully destroys a city like a posh Godzilla.
From its errors, it's clear why critics pounced on the uneven tone of Renfield, but the filmmakers have hardly concocted a cheap knockoff. There's enough originality and charm to warrant renting or streaming this unwashed gem.