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Nicolas Cage's Renfield Isn't The Character's First Film (But It Could Be The Best)

Nicolas Cage's "Renfield" film didn't scare up much of an audience over its opening weekend in cinemas. However, the movie's audience score of 80% on Rotten tomatoes proves there's still life in old R.M. Renfield yet. The Count's devotee first appeared in the pages of author Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, but it took another 25 years before Renfield showed up on the big screen. And while this latest venture by Universal Pictures isn't the insect-munching maniac's first rodeo, the new horror comedy could be the best installment to feature the character.

The first iteration of Renfield showed up as Knock (Alexander Granach) in the unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's "Dracula," which is the 1922 silent film "Nosferatu." In the new "Renfield," Hoult plays the titular role, but his version of supernatural sidekick stands out from other adaptations for a number of reasons. First and foremost, director Chris McKay and writers Robert Kirkman ("The Walking Dead") and Ryan Ridley focus on the fact that, like his evil master, Renfield possesses supernatural powers.

The idea of the Count's consort eating bugs is a 126-year-old concept, but the creative team here reinforces the notion that those insects have blood in their veins. And that ichor gives Renfield extraordinary abilities. Indeed, Renfield comes across as superhero-esque during many scenes throughout the film. The protagonist carries a small tin full of bugs around with him, and Renfield pops an insect into his mouth like a Tic Tac whenever he needs to access his otherworldly gifts.

Renfield's powers makes this a top-tier Dracula film

Hoult's Renfield veers drastically from the centuries-old comparisons of the crazed man who first appeared on the Silver Screen courtesy of two actors. The more well-known, Dwight Frye, starred as Dracula's (Bela Lugosi) henchman in "Dracula" (1931). But Universal Pictures simultaneously produced a Spanish-language version featuring Pablo Álvarez Rubio in the role. Frye and Rubio's versions are much more myopic, and Hoult's super-powered incarnation clearly outshines their attempts and makes the modern-day "Renfield" a far better film, in terms of serving that particular character.

However, even with this new exploration of Renfield's preternatural gifts, Hoult still let the past influence his approach to the role. "I would listen to Dwight Frye's laugh a lot because I thought that was such a beautiful performance he gave in that film," Hoult said during an interview with Rotten Tomatoes. "And that laugh is so iconic that I wanted to pay homage to it a little bit."

In addition to expanding Renfield's character through a deep dive of his superpowers, the likes of which had never been explored, the filmmakers took things a step further to differentiate their version of Dracula's disciple. This time around Renfield fell in love, and he even made a whole host of friends. However, it's his more richly developed relationship with the Prince of Darkness — complicated as it might be — that also propels this film version beyond others in the past.

Deeper relationships make Renfield stand out

Exploring the super-powered side of Dracula's servant was genius, but McCay and company took another detour off the conventional highway when they complicated the protagonist's relationship with his surly vampire master. Renfield's internal struggles stem from the regret he feels for his participation in the toxicity that exists between him and his master. And it's the intricate nature of Dracula and Renfield's disquieting bond that helps this film separate itself from some of the greatest entries in the franchise's long and storied history.

"Defining their relationship is difficult to define in a clear way because it's so intertwined," Hoult said during the same interview. "They really do depend on each other and have grown so accustomed to each other. And there is a lot of love between them and care. And then there's also this fear and this toxic, abusive kind of element to it." Before the Nicholas Cage version of "Renfield," the Count's confidant almost always came across as strictly subservient to Dracula's whims and desires — and without any meaningful character development for himself. 

Some of those performances over the years like Arte Johnson's over-the-top portrayal in "Love at First Bite" worked, and others like Peter MacNichol's perfunctory attempt in Mel Brooks' "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" did not. But thanks to Nicholas Hoult, and the creative team behind this latest Universal Picture, R.M. Renfield finally appears in a movie that shines the spotlight solely on him.