Renfield review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
I’m sure that the mere utterance of “Starring Nicholas Cage is Dracula” will be enough of a selling point for Renfield. To the film’s credit, it uses Cage precisely as you’d expect for such a role. He camps it up and has a lot of fun playing a monster who seems to get giddy and sexual with every throat he sinks his fangs into. That’s the reason to come. The reason to stay is for a surprisingly engaging tale of toxic relationships and the over-the-top violence weaving this story.
At the film's heart is Renfield (Nicolas Hoult), the assistant Dracula with only known servitude to the legendary vampire. Having been with Dracula for many years (apparently the same timeline as the 1930s Dracula movie, if we’re to believe the opening), Renfield has started to doubt this lifestyle. Sure, he’s enjoyed a life where he can eat bugs and become a violent murder machine, never having to worry about protection or money. But time passes, and the servant soon realizes there may be more to life than bringing dead bodies to Dracula. Maybe he needs to become more independent.
Renfield’s quest for self-confidence takes him to some strange places in his new city setting. He hooks up with a toxic relationship group and does his best to try to convey his situation. While he listens to the plight of others, he finds toxic people who seemingly deserve to be hauled back to Dracula. He later connects with the struggling cop, Rebecca (Awkwafina), who is trying to stop the mafia from controlling the city. When Dracula hooks up with the mob, they have a common enemy, and an alliance forms. With Renfield’s ability to rip off limbs and Rebecca’s aggressive attitude, they might just clean up this city from the scourge of corrupt cops, deadly gangsters, and an even deadlier vampire.
What makes Renfield work is its pitch-shifting between a meaningful tale of someone trying to get out of an abusive relationship and having brutal fun with the setting and concept. It’s a very knowing film in terms of how it is staged. Nearly every scene has some sharp color to it, be it the oddly-green gym location or the neon-drenched Louisiana restaurant. Every moment of self-realization is treated with an earnest desire to change, albeit through the film’s tongue-in-cheek nature. Every action scene is an over-the-top bonanza of ludicrous violence. Watching Renfield chop off limbs, break bones, and stab people with removed limbs is a darkly hilarious sight to behold.
The best personification of the film can be felt through Ben Schwartz playing the lead mob enforcer. He’s an absurd man with violent urges and tries to prove himself to his vicious mob mom, getting too excited for every encounter. It makes his meeting with Dracula incredibly funny, for Ben admits he works for an evil group of people. He’s aware of his role and embraces every bit of its weirdness. At the same time, this film also has moments of shock and heart, especially when Renfield watches helplessly and feels compelled to stay under Dracula’s roof. It makes his eventual turn all the more earned and exciting. It’s also incredibly hilarious that Renfield has been thinking for a long time about how exactly to kill Dracula.
Renfield doesn’t always mesh well with the action, drama, and comedy, but plenty of scenes gel so well it’s worth watching. If nothing else, the brazen brutality had me laughing hard at how Hoult looks almost innocent as he gores hitmen in front of Awkwafina. Paced at 90 minutes, it’s a brisk bit of ridiculous vampire comedy that does a decent job satisfying that urge to poke fun at the monster who pokes necks.