Renfield, the latest horror-comedy film from director Chris McKay, has taken audiences by surprise with its potent blend of humor and gore, along with its standout performance from Nicholas Cage as Dracula.
I confess I went in with moderate expectations, but Renfield easily exceeded them. The film follows the story of Renfield, Dracula’s loyal assistant, as he tries to break free from his vampiric master’s grasp and start a new life for himself. The movie is set in present-day New Orleans, which adds a unique flavor to the story with its distinctive charm and allows for a few wry gags about drive-through daiquiris and the like.
Nicholas Holt plays Renfield as the ultimate soft-boi serial killer, oscillating between gothic violence, heartfelt self-recrimination, and tasteful sweaters. Akwafina also delivers a fun performance as Officer Rebecca Quincy, a cop investigating both the local mob and a spate of a mysterious recent slayings, who is both charming and tough as nails.
One of the biggest surprises of the film is Ben Schwartz’s performance as local mobster scion Teddy Lobo. While he isn’t prominently featured in the trailer, Schwartz’s self-important asshole brings a lot of humor to the character (screen writer Ryan Ridley graciously credits him with a lot of improv). He probably gets the most laughs of anyone, and deservedly so.
But most everyone who buys a ticket will be buying it to see Cage as Dracula… and it’s good news. Cage plays the villain with a menacing charm, with a transatlantic drawl based in part on Cage’s own father (possibly this is worth Cage discussing with his therapist) and in part, incredibly, on Anne Bancroft in The Graduate. Dracula’s physicality, meanwhile, is based somewhat on previous iterations (Lugosi, Lee, Oldman) but also on Cage’s longstanding dreams of being an art-rock singer-showman. Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop provide the reference points for some of the poses he strikes. Whenever he plays dom to Hoult’s emotional sub, there’s a definite perverse eroticism to it.
Ridley also confirms that his writing Dracula as a gaslighting, ranting, manipulative boss from hell was based on his own experiences working for Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon. I have nothing to add to that, I just thought it was worth sharing.
The filmmakers aim to balance humour and violence in the style of An American Werewolf in London, and though it’s more cartoonish and less grounded than that movie, it succeeds as a camp romp – I found myself laughing out loud more times than I expected. But what sets Renfield apart from other horror-comedies is the balance it strikes between psychological truth and extreme gore. One moment someone can be making a heartfelt (yet amusingly incongruous) speech about the dangers of being co-dependent with a narcissist, and the next moment someone’s face is being ripped off with a single swipe. Yet the gore never feels gratuitous or unnecessary – it’s all in service of the darkly humorous tone of the film.
I also appreciated a number of unexpected swerves in the film – flashbacks are achieved by digitally adding Cage and Hoult to such films as the original Universal Dracula, and (briefly) London After Midnight. And the first act features a surprisingly extensive running gag about how much ska music sucks. (Point of order – ska is great, and it is NOT just all horns).
One sad note is that the movie seems to have been significantly chopped back in the editing suite. Camille Chen, playing Officer Quincy’s sister, has surprisingly little to do besides running a DNA check, despite being an FBI Agent who randomly hangs around her sister’s precinct station. Some showpiece costuming (a gorgeous red cape for Dracula) is glimpsed only very briefly. And saddest of all, a massive Hoult-centric song and dance routine down the streets of New Orleans’s historic French Quarter is reduced to a few shots overlaid on the end credits. Word on the street – Universal stepped in and demanded that the movie be as streamlined and pacey as possible. However, based on pre-release buzz they’re now giving it a massive push, so I’m sure the filmmakers aren’t going to grumble too loudly, but if you enjoy Renfield then do maybe shed a tear for what could have been – or keep an eye out for blu-ray deleted scenes
Overall, I give Renfield four stars. It’s a goofy, smart, bloody, and refreshing take on horror-comedy, with fun performances, clever writing, and a perfect blend of humor and extreme gore. If you’re a fan of such things, good news: Renfield doesn’t suck.
Renfield played at the Overlook Film Festival and hits theatres on April 14th.