Directed by Chris McKay
★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
🩸🩸🩸🩸 out of 🩸🩸🩸🩸🩸 for copious amounts of bloodshed, dismemberments, beheadings, exploding bodies, the use of severed limbs as weapons, and eviscerations.
Explosive. Clever. Gory. Hilarious. Fresh.
You might not have more fun at a horror movie in 2023 than at Renfield. Given the fact that we also had the highly entertaining Cocaine Bear released earlier this year, that’s really saying something. The Scariest Things was fortunate enough to be at the World Premiere of Renfield at the Overlook Film Festival. We had high hopes going into the movie and this exceeded my expectations by quite a bit.
This showcase was perfectly cast with Nicolas Cage as Count Dracula and Nicholas Hoult as his familiar man-servant, the eponymous R.M. Renfield. This is a property steeped in lore and gravitas, but for many, has been relegated to an afterthought as horror movies are concerned. It has been many years since a serious adaptation has been attempted, with the mediocre underwhelming flop Dracula Untold as the last attempt to inject life into the undead classic. (Yeah, so much for that PG-13 attempt. Dracula is a monster, not an anti-hero.) Leave it to a horror-comedy to properly handle the story successfully. Universal has not been shy with their confidence in this film, as they have been aggressively promoting Renfield, and well they should. This might be the most entertaining version of Dracula yet, and it certainly will vie for the bloodiest version. So long as the audience has a stomach for copious gore, this movie will be a huge crowd-pleaser.
For those of you not bathed in the lore of Dracula, Renfield is a man blessed/doomed with eternal youth, at the cost of being the vampire lord’s lackey for said eternity. One of the great things about this movie being a Universal Production is that they were able to use the original 1931 Dracula footage, digitally grafting Cage and Hoult onto the images of Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, who inhabited these roles in the original. It was a beautiful touch and the film allows the conceit that this version of Dracula and Renfield are the same people, 90 years later.
Those years did not pass easily though, as vampire hunters have tracked and nearly destroyed the vampire, forcing the two of them into hiding in New Orleans, so that Dracula can heal. Renfield has been tasked to find fresh victims (innocent victims, ideally) for Dracula to feed upon. Renfield, however, is beginning to develop a conscience. He has joined a Co-Dependency support group to deal with his conflicted feelings about serving the Count, but at the same time has targeted the abusers of his fellow victims as a blood supply for his boss.
The targeting of local miscreants leads to a conflict with the local “Lobo” mob and their drug-dealing operations, and also the local corrupt police force. When a conveniently timed encounter between, Renfield, the mob, and the cops collide, Renfield shows off his substantial fighting prowess, gifted to him whenever he eats bugs (A nice nod to the original). The ensuing battle is explosive, exciting, and filled with gratuitous bloodshed. The aftermath leads to a budding friendship between Renfield and the Police Officer, Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) who has been tracking the mob activities. Renfield begins to believe he might be able to live a normal life free of his overlord.
Dracula discovers that his servant has gone rogue by giving him definitively not-innocent victims to suck dry. Despite the sub-par food source, the vampire has recovered enough strength to go out and find out what Renfield has been up to, and who he has been protecting from him. As if a bloody swath hadn’t already been cut through the City, Dracula’s wrath and power escalate the torrent of blood and guts to the next level in his vengeful pursuit of his wayward familiar.
There is NEVER a dull moment in this movie. When the story pauses for comedic and/or empathetic beats, the movie still captivates. The combination of Chris McKay’s energetic directing and the whip-smart writing team of Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and Ryan Ridley (Community) keep the pace lively and both the gory action and the comic beats are perfectly timed. McKay’s comic background with Robot Chicken and Lego Batman is clear evidence here. Even single-line deliveries from background characters stick the landing. I do hope he sticks in the horror-comedy space because he really was cooking with this film.
Nicholas Hoult effectively plays the straight man, while Cage chews up the scenery with feigned surprise and shock and raw ferocious fury. He’s now the perfect age to play the part. He looks marvelous, with the right hairline, profile, and physical prowess. Where he really stands out is with his eyebrows and hands, combining the dapper Dracula demeanor of Lugosi with the raw feral power of Christopher Lee. This film keeps Dracula as a Victorian anachronism, much like how What We Do in the Shadows embraces the look of the gothic vampire, letting the effete gothic affectations and flourishes play to humorous effect. For my money, this is the best rendering of Dracula since The Horror of Dracula. By focusing on Renfield, the story allows for Dracula to be this looming ominous presence, and he has just the right amount of screen time.
Hoult is at his best when he adapts the crestfallen posture of a man worn down by the ages, though as an action figure, he is admittedly pretty impressive. His earnestness and guilt weigh on him, and that gloom hovers over him until he makes the decision to turn on his master. It is the fun essence of this film to watch this revelatory transition. Like Dracula, he is a man out of sync with time: he has not aged and is propped up by dark forces. This is subtly played, and knowing that he is struggling with his fate is half the fun of this character.
Awkwafina gets to play the audience’s perspective as the reaction character, and she does so with great snark and wit. Terrific side performances should be acknowledged for Shohreh Aghdashloo as the mob boss Lobo, Brandon Scott Jones as Mark the support group counselor, and Ben Schwartz as Lobo’s incompetent son, Tedward.
There are a couple of brilliant prop gags, one involving a welcome mat, and the other with an ant farm that really highlights how much fun the filmmakers had with the well-trodden vampire tropes. If there were any gripes I had, they would be minor. The back story of Officer Quincy and her family was a bit awkwardly placed in the film and stood out a little as a railroading device. Given Renfield’s knowledge of his master, you would have thought that it would be easier for him to betray Dracula, by using any of the well-known weaknesses to his advantage.
But, these are minor quibbles that don’t detract much from my enjoyment of the film. Much has been made about Universal’s disastrous reboot of their monsterverse with the overcooked mess that was The Mummy in 2017 leading many to believe that the studio lacked the ability to capitalize on the value of its legendary historic catalog. With The Invisible Man (2020) and now with Renfield, it appears that they may have figured out how to make these work. Start by embracing the R-ratings. Recognize that at the core these are horror movies and not superhero movies. They do not need to be interconnected. Leave the mash-ups to Abbott and Costello. I am a bit surprised that Netflix, and not Universal, is slated to produce Guillermo Del Toro’s Frankenstein reboot.
Renfield is rated R, for lots and lots of gory action. The violence and gore are spectacular and more likely to elicit cheers than screams from the audience, but this movie is definitely not appropriate for young children. The movie will be released on April 14 of 2023 and I am betting that this will be prime box office material, and worth repeat viewings.
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