Renfield may ultimately be a disposable horror-comedy — a genre mashup of What We Do in the Shadows and John Wick that isn’t quite as delightful as that sounds — but give it credit for some indelible casting: Nicolas Cage as Dracula is an inspired choice. As the heir apparent to Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee’s classic portrayals of the Count, the actor embodies the spirit of those performances with flamboyant glee while nonetheless making it a singular Cage creation. Whenever he’s on the screen (which is thankfully quite a bit), Renfield is delirious fun.
If you’re unfamiliar with the specifics of Dracula lore, there’s no need to worry, as the movie opens with a rapid-fire montage filling you in on all you need to know about the title character (played by Nicholas Hoult in wide-eyed puppy dog mode). Renfield is Dracula’s bug-eating servant — a poor sap bestowed with a fraction of Dracula’s powers, whose entire purpose is to fetch fresh victims on whom his master can munch.
As one might imagine, such an existence might grow old after a century or so, and after attending a support group for codependent relationships, Renfield realizes his boss might be a bit of a toxic asshole and it may be time to get out from under the shadow of his cloak. Unfortunately, Renfield’s efforts get him tangled up in a feud between New Orleans beat cop Rebecca (Awkwafina) and the son of the city’s most powerful mobster (Ben Schwartz, given surprisingly little to do).
All that exposition is conveyed to the audience in roughly two minutes, and the breakneck pacing is part of both Renfield’s strengths and weaknesses. Unlike most wide releases these days, director Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War) understands a story this simple does not need to be padded out to two-and-a-half hours. The plot is essentially Renfield vs. Dracula and a bunch of generic mobsters, and any subplots are typically forgotten before they can even be resolved. Frankly, there’s no time to give any characters outside Renfield much depth.
What does work for Renfield, besides Cage’s delightful scene-chewing, is its unapologetic dorkiness. It tracks that this story was conceived by famed comic-book writer Robert Kirkman (Invincible, The Walking Dead), as the film itself feels like it could have been ripped straight from the pages of a graphic novel. The goofy mixture of brutal action scenes, Universal Monsters and vulgar humor is the kind of tonal mishmash upon which authors like Kirkman and Mark Millar built their careers.
Some of those elements fare better than others, however. Hoult and Awkwafina’s talent alone sells most of the comedic dialogue, much of which would fall flat in the hands of lesser performers. On the other hand, the action sequences often feel clunky and out-of-place. As amazing as the John Wick films are, its imitators are already starting to wear thin, and what we get here is a pale imitation. It doesn’t help that the kills here contain what might be the worst CG blood I’ve ever seen in a wide-release movie, robbing many of the gore gags of their impact. Seriously, the effects make 2019’s Hellboy look like John Carpenter’s The Thing.
At less than 90 minutes (minus credits), it’s hard to be too critical of Renfield, a movie that only wants to be a breezy good time and give Cage a chance to pour himself into a role he’s clearly having a blast playing. With its juvenile violence and neon-tinged comic-book visuals, I imagine my high-school self would have proclaimed this his favorite movie of the year, but it still makes for passable entertainment 15 years later.