What were the chances Nicolas Cage was going to finish his career without playing Count Dracula? We’re at the phase of Cage where we’re knowingly capitalising on his most outlandish incarnations. Gone are the days when he had any ambition to win Academy Awards (he did that already), and now, we just want to add another brick to the sturdy edifice of Cage at his most gonzo. And one of the earliest examples of that Cage also found him in vampire form, in the 1988 film Vampire’s Kiss.


Really, though, Cage is a supporting character in Renfield, as you might guess from that title. The main character here is Dracula’s familiar, R.M. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), who brings victims to his master and derives a small percentage of the vampire’s power by masticating insects. Chris McKay’s film is a very 2020s way of bringing back familiar intellectual property, kind of like what DC is doing in a few weeks when it gives starved audiences another helping of Batman – I mean, it’s been nearly 15 months since our last one – via a movie about The Flash.

Fortunately, they’ve selected a highly charismatic Renfield in Hoult, who also returns to familiar territory of sorts. Aspects of this film might put you in mind of Warm Bodies, the 2013 zom com in which Hoult played a sort of half-zombie, who couldn’t speak but could still experience a range of emotions in his head, as well as provide narration. Hoult also narrates Renfield, giving us a whimsical back story of how we got to this point, which sees Renfield and his boss making their umpteenth relocation after going out in a blaze of glory in their last place of residence – quite literally.

“This point” is present-day New Orleans, and we are about to meet the film’s third important comedic collaborator: Awkwafina. The multi-hyphenate, all-around hilarious performer didn’t have to be in Renfield and it still would have been pretty fun, but her unexpected presence as a police officer escaping the shadow of her heroic dad gives the film extra zags of comedic energy, when it had been zigging.

She comes into the story through a series of circumstances arising from Renfield just trying to do his job. The old softie has lost his taste for killing, if he ever had it, though his thoroughly co-dependent relationship with Dracula means he has to keep identifying and kidnapping victims. As both a means of addressing his co-dependency and finding these victims, Renfield attends a support group for people in abusive relationships. He doesn’t want to feed these nice people to Dracula; he wants to feed his boss the people responsible for driving them to therapy.


One such abuser is a low-level drug dealer who has just ripped off cocaine from the wrong people, that being the Lobo family, fronted by Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Teddy (Ben Schwartz). Renfield gets to his hideout just before the mobsters. It’s when a spooked Teddy drives through a sobriety checkpoint that Awkwafina’s Rebecca sees her opportunity to take him down and prove herself to the force. After all, he’s touting bags of cocaine drenched in the blood of severed body parts.

Renfield’s decision to take its two literary icons out of their normal environs pays immediate dividends. Dracula comedies set in Transylvania already had their chance with the Leslie Nielsen movie Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which has a few laughs but is closer to the lower end of Nielsen’s comedic output than the higher. As less and less of our collective literary legacy is being handed down to the younger generations, it’s necessary to give them a Dracula in a setting they can relate to. And Hoult’s self-effacing voiceover gives us enough of the stations of the cross from Bram Stoker’s novel that the film doesn’t turn its back on that history either.


Cage is a hoot. We get plenty of him in familiar Dracula attire – in fact, there’s a loving recreation of scenes from Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, with Cage and Hoult replacing Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. But we also get Cage emerging from a chrysalis of his own burnt flesh, not quite killed in his last battle with vampire hunters, but considerably more liquefied than solid. It’s the blood of innocents Renfield supplies him that will help regain his previous form, and yet in Cage’s hands, even this moulting version of Dracula communicates with a sing-songy and sadistic glee.

Although straight comedy is most often McKay’s desired tone, the film does do a bit of lurching back and forth between pure whimsy and something a lot more schmaltzy. You’d be remiss not to register a few raised eyebrows over the movie’s narrative bone structure, especially the part about the screw-up police officer fighting corrupt cops to make her deceased dad proud. Whenever the film tries to rein itself in and become something more conventional, it loses the sense of wildness that was always the reason it was worth casting Cage, or even making the movie in the first place.


Ultimately, these are pretty insignificant complaints. This is a minor miracle of mainstream filmmaking in that it takes a smart idea, gives it a modern twist, applies some really good special effects, gives us top-notch and extremely bloody fight choreography, casts a bunch of appealing actors, and still manages to wrap up at only 93 minutes without any serious deficiencies in its storytelling. If it doesn’t reach the total upper end of its potential, that’s because sometimes an idea is greater on the page than it can ever become on screen. Still, the resulting movie is pretty close to the glorious embodiment of a concept that plays to the strengths of one of our nuttiest icons.


Renfield is currently playing in cinemas.  

7 / 10