Film Reviews


Published June 2, 2023
When your boss is a real bloodsucker...

After watching Renfield I walked back to the car, switched on the ignition and was greeted by strains of Bela Lugosi’s Dead, by the original Goth band, Bauhaus. “No,” I thought. “Bela Lugosi is not dead! He’s very much alive and goes by the name of Nicolas Cage.”

In the context of Cage’s roller-coaster career, filled with spectacular hits and even more spectacular flops, Dracula is a kind of logical destination. Cage was, by all accounts, enthusiastic about the role, which allows him every opportunity to unleash the inner loon that has haunted his entire career, both on and off screen.

One can feel the research that went into this portrayal of the Prince of Darkness. Cage has channeled all the great vampires, from Bela Lugosi in his stiff, undead dignity, to Christopher Lee in his most savage incarnation. This Dracula is more destructive and bloodthirsty than most, but also more comical. It’s an absurd, over-the-top Dracula for an age of CGI-driven action films in which audiences feel let down if a movie doesn’t have frequent martial arts sequences and buckets of gore.

Renfield is well stocked in both these departments, although director, Chris McKay, has pushed everything so far it becomes patently ridiculous – a self-conscious send-up of action and horror genres that will have viewers chuckling where they might otherwise be retching. What else can one do with a fight scene in which our hero rips off both of his opponent’s arms and uses them to hit another guy over the head? All with obligatory lashings of tomato sauce.

Dracula is a destructive force whenever he appears, but he is only a supporting character in this film. The focus, for the first time in history, is Renfield, the Count’s poor, demented lickspittle, whom we meet in Bram Stoker’s novel, locked away in a mental asylum munching on insects, dreaming of being a bloodsucker. On screen, Renfield has appeared in so many disreputable, pathetic guises it seems almost unthinkable to make him the hero.

There must be something about Nicholas Hoult’s fresh-faced good looks, or his English diffidence, but he is forever being typecast as a nitwit. From his role as the idiot Peter, in The Great, to the pathetic foodie, Tyler, in The Menu, Hoult has bumbled his way through one embarrassing persona after another. As Renfield, he has another opportunity to be weak-willed and snivelling, confused and awkward. He achieves these feats for most of the film in Dracula’s presence, but the abiding gag is that this worm is gradually turning.

The backstory, told with a marvellous black-and-white flashback that duplicates all the old Tod Browning imagery from 1931, is that Renfield was an ambitious young lawyer who travelled to Eastern Europe to interest Dracula in a real estate deal. Instead, he fell prey to the Count’s hypnotic personality, and became his “familiar”, charged with the task of moving the boss’s coffin during daylight hours, and serving up a menu of fresh victims.

Renfield’s pay-off is immortality and a slice of the vampire’s own superpowers whenever he gobbles a handful of insects. This allows him to tear people limb from limb, when necessary, while preserving his diffident demeanour.

Just like Stoker’s Renfield, who suffered a crisis of conscience and fell out with the Master, this version is beginning to feel he can’t go on supplying innocent victims to his voracious employer. Now based in New Orleans, he has placed Dracula in the basement of an abandoned hospital to recover from a violent encounter with a group of vampire hunters. Reduced to little more than a carbonised skeleton, the Count needs to regain strength and put some flesh back on his bones. It’s Renfield’s task to supply the nutrients.

After almost a century, Renfield is feeling sickened by this routine. He hits on the expedient of bringing Dracula criminals that will never be missed, but this gets an angry response, as the blood is not sufficiently pure to ensure a speedy recovery. The Master has more specific tastes: unwary tourists, a group of nuns, a busload of cheerleaders!

Finding it ever harder to fulfil his brief, Renfield has drifted into a self-help group for people in co-dependent relationships. He feels empowered by listening to others’ stories, and by a book that talks about the problems of living with a narcissist. Little by little, he tries to change his life. He moves into a studio apartment that he paints in bright colours, and buys himself a new wardrobe, swapping his worn tweeds for pastel sweaters.

Renfield’s great moment of revelation, however, is when he sees police officer Rebecca Quincey (Awkwafina), stand up to a group of murderous gangsters, led by the deplorable Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), a mummy’s boy who struggles to keep up the family’s reputation for pure evil. Mayhem ensues, and Renfield finds a new love objet, although the relationship has about as much sexual tension as that between Peter Pan and Wendy.

Rebecca, for her part, seems to be the only honest cop in a city controlled by the Lobo family, headed by Mother From Hell, Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Soon the couple will be pitted against the combined forces of criminals and cops, with a body count that ticks over at lightning speed. The looming danger is that Dracula, feeling betrayed by Renfield, seems prepared to switch his allegiance to the Lobos in order to advance his plans for world domination.

If this sounds ludicrous that’s an accurate assessment. The seminal gag upon which the movie hangs, is Renfield’s recognition that he is in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with Dracula. By applying the language of group therapy and pop psychology to the Count and his familiar, the film brings the supernatural into the realm of banality.

The most memorable part of a story that is consisently silly but never wildly funny, is Cage’s portrayal of Dracula. We watch him evolve by degrees, with different amounts of viscera showing, while he works his way back to full power. As he regains his vigour, Dracula becomes more psychotic, violent and megalomaniacal. Rather than a couple of fangs, his mouth contains two rows of small, pointed teeth, like twin saws. His eyes are wild and bloodshoot, his face scarred and greenish. But behind the fierce visage lurks a psychologist, who tells his assistant: “I’m not the monster, Renfield. You are.”

This film works on the viewer in the same manner. Feeling at my wit’s end with this tacky production, in the back of my mind I heard a small voice whispering: “You’re actually enjoying this, aren’t you?”




Directed by Chris McKay

Written by Ryan Ridley, Robert Kirkman, Ava Tramer

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ben Schwartz, Brandon Scott Jones, Camille Chen, Bess Rous, Danya laBelle

USA, MA 15+, 93 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 June, 2023