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Renfield Review: Dracula Sucks As The Classic Narcissistic Boss

  • Empathetic performance from Nicholas Hoult
  • Classic Nicolas Cage silliness
  • Quirky sense of humor
  • Paper-thin secondary characters
  • Focuses too much on mob subplot

It's been more than a century since Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was published, and by this point, we've seen pretty much every incarnation of the legendary vampire you can think of. So what's the best way to adapt the classic horror novel without making a complete retread of other iterations? Focus on the often overlooked Renfield, codependent manservant to Dracula and bug eater extraordinaire. "Renfield" offers up a pop psychology interpretation of their famously toxic relationship, bringing an entirely different angle to the story in the process.

"Renfield" is sort of like what would happen if Stoker went through a big TikTok psychology video binge as a means of procrastination while writing "Dracula." It takes the iconically fearsome vampire and casts him less as a mysterious creature of the night and more as a toxic boss who gives you side eye when you ask to take time off for your grandfather's funeral service. Nicholas Hoult stars as Renfield, Dracula's obsequious crony, powered by bug juice and responsible for the gruesome drudgery of delivering victims to his master as though they were feeder mice. But after a hundred years in servitude, Renfield begins to long for something more. He wants to be a person — and more to the point, he wants to be a good person — which conflicts with his life as a purveyor of human bodies for vampiric consumption. He attends a support group for people in similarly toxic relationships, but it isn't until he crosses paths with loose-cannon police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) that he actually musters the courage to do something about it. The results are amusing, but also fairly flawed.

The comedy stylings of Dracula

Despite its dark source material, "Renfield" is light on the horror and heavy on the comedy. This is obvious from the casting choices: Sitcom stars Ben Schwartz and Brandon Scott Jones both have supporting roles, while Nicholas Hoult, Awkwafina, and Nicolas Cage all have proven track records as deft comic actors. Even the violence — a necessity in a film like this — is cartoonishly over-the-top, with buckets of CGI blood flying everywhere and baddies being beaten to death with their own limbs. "Renfield" is ... well, there's really no other word for it: goofy. But for audiences who are willing to embrace its quirky sense of humor, it may just prove a winner.

"Renfield" is also surprisingly effective at utilizing costume design and set decoration to provide insight into Renfield's character. When he attempts to make a clean break from Dracula and assert his identity, the film doesn't go the hot, stylish route with his clothes or his new apartment. Instead, it reflects his optimism about the possibility of a fresh start, complete with bright colors, flowers, and inspirational posters (including one with a picture of waffles that simply says "YOLO"). There are dozens of silly little touches in "Renfield" that give it a personality often lacking in films like these.

Hoult holds the entire movie together on his own, imbuing the lead role with a disconcerting humanity. Although the recurring voiceover heard throughout "Renfield" can get pretty cheesy, his offbeat charisma goes a long way in making the titular character endearing — no small feat for a man who spends a significant portion of his time munching on bugs. Despite being a traditionally handsome leading man type, Hoult's always had a slightly chaotic energy. This is a great fit for "Renfield," especially during his scenes with Cage, who is equally unhinged. Is Cage's performance 80% prosthetic teeth acting? Sure. But if you put that man in a vampire cape and let him skulk around for a bit, it's hard not to have a good time.

Police vs. mob cliches

Unfortunately, the characterization across the board tends to be a little bit uneven. Awkwafina gets a few quips in here and there, but the character of Rebecca Quincy, an idealistic police officer determined to get justice for her father's murder by the mob, is riddled with clichés. She doesn't make much of an impact on the film, and her chemistry with Nicholas Hoult is practically nonexistent. Ben Schwartz is usually a delight to watch, but his Teddy Lobo, the scion of a mob family, is a complete cardboard cutout of a character. There's no nuance to him, which makes his position as a secondary antagonist fall rather flat. 

Narratively speaking, "Renfield" stumbles in its decision to focus so extensively on the mob and their control of the city. Their conflict is thinly plotted, and it has the unpleasant side effect of sidelining Count Dracula when he should be an inescapably prominent role. The film likely would have benefitted from cutting the mob storyline altogether and focusing instead on a battle of wits between Dracula and Renfield as the latter attempts to regain his free will and grapple with the terrible things he's done over the past century.

There are kernels of a really interesting take on the "Dracula" mythos here, and the Nicolas-on-Nicholas violence ensures a film that's at least enjoyable to watch. It's just a shame that it so frequently undercuts its own stakes (pun extremely intended) and mishandles every attempt to create a secondary subplot with the mob. Hoult puts in a Herculean effort to give the misunderstood character of Renfield a soul, and while he succeeds there, the film as a whole is frustratingly flawed.

"Renfield" hits theaters on April 14.