Horror comedies are a dime a dozen and are incredibly difficult to do.
The best ones play the horror straight and include spot-on humor. The worst are over-the-top silly and show no reverence towards the horror elements.
RENFIELD (2023), a new horror comedy which stars Nicholas Hoult as Dracula’s long-suffering servant Renfield who in 2023 joins a self-help group to give him the confidence to break ties with his narcissistic master, does show respect to its source material, Dracula, and does include moments of well-timed and clever humor, but overall is bogged down by a stale plot of gangsters and police corruption that sadly takes center stage and definitely gets in the way of the better story of Renfield and Dracula, making this one a mixed bag for sure.
The best part of RENFIELD is Nicolas Cage’s performance as Dracula. At first, it might seem with the obvious connections that this movie makes with Universal’s DRACULA (1931) that Cage’s performance is a direct homage to Bela Lugosi, but Cage doesn’t stop with Lugosi, as his interpretation also at times captures the essence of Christopher Lee. And director Chris McKay also shoots some scenes where Cage even resembles Carlos Villarias who played Dracula in Universal’s Spanish version of DRACULA (1931). But as good as Cage is, and as expected, he’s very good, he’s not enough to save this movie.
RENFIELD gets off to an impressive start as both Nicholas Hoult as Renfield and Nicolas Cage as Dracula are inserted into scenes from Universal’s DRACULA (1931) which both serves as an homage to the Bela Lugosi classic and also shows the origins of the relationship between Dracula and Renfield, making this movie a sequel of sorts to the 1931 movie. It’s a great way to start, and it had me excited about what was to follow.
The action then switches to present day where we see Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) joining a self-help group in New Orleans and listening to these people’s stories of how they are being abused by narcissistic companions. Since Renfield is still finding victims for Dracula, he targets these people’s abusers, hoping to do some good as well, by ridding the world of some pretty awful people by turning them into food for Dracula. Usually, a vampire’s victims turn into vampires themselves, and so Renfield would actually be making the world worse, when these folks turn into vampires, but the movie doesn’t go there.
Instead, the movie goes to places which frankly just aren’t very interesting. Renfield’s selective victim process inadvertently lands him in the path of a very powerful crime family who has nearly the entire police force in their pocket. The one honest cop— seriously, nearly everyone else in this movie who wears a badge is corrupt— Rebecca (Awkwafina) constantly finds her efforts to take down this family thwarted by her corrupt superiors.
The more interesting storyline follows Renfield’s efforts to distance himself from Dracula (Nicolas Cage), especially after opening up to the others in the support group who encourage him to stand up for himself, as well as Dracula’s efforts to keep Renfield as his slave. Whenever Dracula is on screen, the movie fires on all cylinders.
Unfortunately, and strangely, the film instead leans heavily on the crime family and police corruption plot, and even when Rebecca and Renfield team up, and Dracula joins forces with the crime family, things never become all that interesting.
The screenplay by Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman, a screenwriter for THE WALKING DEAD TV series, has as its centerpiece the support group sequences where Renfield talks about his relationship with the narcissistic Dracula. These are the best scenes in the movie and play out like a Saturday Night Live sketch. Unfortunately, neither Ridley nor Kirkman do much to build a movie around this idea. The crime family/police corruption plot is flat out awful, and why the movie spends so much time on this cliched claptrap is beyond me. And while the Renfield/Dracula storyline is better, the script is largely repetitive, as the same ideas are churned over repeatedly. As a result, the humor is not overly sharp. There are some moments and some jokes that land, but for the most part, the screenplay is a one trick pony that gets old long before its end credits run, which is pretty bad, since RENFIELD clocks in at a brief 93 minutes.
Director Chris McKay, who directed THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017) and the science fiction flick THE TOMORROW WAR (2021), which I really liked, does a nice job with the visuals here. The aforementioned use of scenes from DRACULA (1931) were fun to see, and he does a terrific job shooting Nicolas Cage as Dracula, who is quite menacing. As I said, at times Cage resembles Lugosi, and he speaks like him, but at other times when he’s violent and hissing, he calls to mind Christopher Lee.
There are also a ton of action scenes in this movie, and they are polished and slick. Renfield inherits superhuman strength whenever he eats bugs— who knew! — a trait that comes in handy whenever he has to fight armies of bad guys or corrupt police officers. But while these scenes are handled well, they are all rather dull and unexciting. They are also incredibly bloody. You can probably fill multiple tubs with the amount of blood spilled in this movie, which brings me to another complaint. So much blood, yet both Renfield and Rebecca always seem to walk away without one ounce of the red stuff on their clothes or bodies. It’s all way too neat and sanitized.
Like I said, the best part of this movie is Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of Dracula. He takes the role seriously, and he plays the vampire king quite menacingly. He’s definitely not a spoof of the character. He makes Dracula downright evil throughout. But that’s not to say he’s not funny, and that may be the greatest strength of Cage’s performance, in that he is both funny and serious. He is able to make the audience laugh as Dracula without sacrificing the integrity of the character. Cage is so good here; he deserves to be in a better movie.
Nicholas Hoult is okay as Renfield, but the character is much less interesting here than Dracula. Hoult does his best to make Renfield a good guy, but the script lets him down. His efforts to free himself of Dracula never rise above the superficial. We just saw Hoult play a less than good guy in THE MENU (2022), a supporting performance that I actually enjoyed a bit more than his portrayal of Renfield.
Awkwafina is fine as Rebecca, but she is stuck in a horrible cliched storyline that drags down the entire movie.
I did really enjoy Brandon Scott Jones as the leader of the self-help group who in the movie’s best sequences gets some of the best moments and lines.
One other disappointing note. While this movie is a wonderful homage to Dracula, thanks to Cage’s performance, what it’s not is a wonderful homage to the title character, Renfield. Dwight Frye as Renfield is one of the best parts of the Lugosi DRACULA, and once you’ve seen that movie, you will never forget his performance. RENFIELD, in spite of being about Renfield, treats Frye as merely an afterthought. Which is all the sadder because even after nearly 100 years, no other actor has played Renfield in a movie the way Frye did. His performance remains the gold standard for the role, and yet, he died young and poor in 1943, and Hollywood has never really given him his due. He deserves better here.
RENFIELD rocks whenever Nicolas Cage is onscreen as Dracula, and its support group scenes are the only ones in this movie that go for the throat and really resonate. They’re hilarious. The rest of the movie features a dull subplot that actually grows into a main plot, and even the better storyline featuring Renfield and Dracula struggles to move forward, as it gets stuck repeating the same points over and over. This is one movie that really could have used… well, some self-help and support.
I give RENFIELD two stars.
Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line
Three and a half stars- Excellent
Three stars – Very Good
Two and a half stars – Good
Two Stars – Fair
One and a half stars – Pretty Weak
One star- Poor
Zero stars – Awful