There’s a quiet macabre renaissance period in mainstream media right now, the type to involve vampires, and often living amongst modern society. The likes of Hotel Transylvania, What We Do in the Shadows, and to a significantly lesser extent, Dracula Untold have proven how enduring the pivotal blood-hungry anti-villain can stay. Just like back in the early days when theatricality counted as much as location. I do find it a little frustrating, therefore, how a dark vampire comedy like Renfield can lose sight of that handshake agreement, while also striving to cover multiple other ideas that, quite possibly, made more sense on paper than behind the camera. It’s almost a disservice to what should be the focal point of an otherwise unique, topical spin on the traditional draconic work. And even then, its key element doesn’t spring up often enough.
Director Chris McKay (The Tomorrow War) makes it instantly clear he’s juggling what feels like a million separate threads with Ryan Ridley’s (Rick and Morty) crackerjack script, based on a Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) story treatment. It should be enough just to pursue a fractured codependency between Dracula, the Prince of Darkness (Nicolas Cage), and his familiar Robert Renfield (Nicholas Hoult). But in a neo-gothic realm like New Orleans, everything’s big in scale, and not as easy to accomplish. It’s much worse when after hundred-plus years and a few narrow escapes, their previous accommodations going sideways after a brush with bright sunlight leaves poor Drac a literal “charred husk”, loyalties have reached a breaking point. By now, Mr. Renfield, is nothing more than an errand boy for his boss, an unglorified assistant (or servant) navigating his drama queen superior from lair to lair. And more importantly, providing his master with food in exchange for healing blood if ever there was a scrape involved. Eating bugs for sustenance can only carry the man so far, after too much of the same old thing.
The demands of the job have left Robert far more drained than his superior, and he wants out. He looks to therapy, a fresh makeover and a new apartment to help distance himself away from the utter narcissism and manipulation revolving around Dracula’s head. Regretfully, he can’t stay away long. Boss calls foul on the basis of betrayal, while Robert is simultaneously roped into a separate storyline heavy enough to exist on its own, but tough to sell without the A-plot’s lift.
As if a vampiric bend for world domination wasn’t enough, criminal kingpin Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz) strolls in to indirectly steal Drac’s thunder and impress her overbearing mom Ella (Shohreh Aghdahsloo), with arms raised to take ownership of the city. This is where it grows even more confusing with officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) thrown in the mix to enact revenge against Teddy for murdering her sergeant father, while making quick friends with Robert to better identify both the flawed hero of his own supernatural story, and an untrustworthy attitude toward the law.
Ridley needlessly overstuffs this adventure with one too many ideas that promise to blend appropriately. Not all of them do, with every ounce of gangster energy (the non-Cagney type) unable to cut the same inroads as that just as inherently old-school horror motif. All are dotted with clever touches from the start, going so far as to introduce this Dracula as a Bela Lugosi-type, evolving quickly to Leslie Nielsen or Matt Berry level aptitude with a pinch of a Vampire’s Kiss throwback. That 30s Universal Horror tone strikes a most resonant chord throughout, shared between interior lighting, Alec Hammond’s (Snake Eyes) transcendent and style-blurring production design, and the high attention to detail in Christien Tinsley’s makeup work. A ravishing template further transforming Cage into a heightening symbol of unbridled evil. Even without the tooth-shortening, life-altering prosthesis, Nic can still commit to the part with all dramatic flair in his arsenal. And it’s perhaps his level of seriousness that once more designates him as the eccentric class clown, so lovably droll, and fittingly brand adherent, to the point where one asks why this script didn’t land in his lap sooner.
Cage’s boisterous, scene-stealing energy doesn’t stop at conveying the exact mood McKay is going for, the pair working well in tandem to nudge the excess of character building in the best (not quite the right) direction. Not that Hoult has reason to fear for being outstripped. Between this and The Menu, he’s still working hard for a star-making turn, but has not quite achieved that point yet. His demeanor screams Lee Evans with a sleepy self-deprecation, though his physicality echoes an amateur Jason Statham with growing skill, and his diction almost thrives in a haltingly mysterious timbre. It’s a winning role, wandering with purpose against Cage’s shadow, chemistry entirely on point, though lost under a mountain’s weight of exposition.
The police response B-story suffers the same fate under Ridley’s eye, with far less control or oversight. While it’s always a joy to see Schwartz ham it up with a highly profane manner of speaking, both his and Aghdashloo’s presences here find themselves buried by admittedly stronger ideas, an overuse of setup, and even a weak MacGuffin thrown in for good measure. Tough not to be grateful for Awkwafina, still on quite a roll for blunt, witty supporting roles who can read the room and often make the mood explosive. When it’s not her, or Cage, it’s the candy-like expression of blood. Of which a lot is spilled, the same way your standard fruit juice lands on an opaque carpet, unmercifully, and perhaps a bit amusing. More so, if there weren’t a litany of distractions bogging down their chilling effect.
I may likely envy those who could look past what pieces of story DNA Renfield cannot crack. Half of what McKay’s attempting to pull from the page can only dream of making sense in the long run; the other half wishes it could fly more on its own without the added counterweight. On either side lies an incomplete sense of showy vanity, aided by a stalwart cast and appropriate visual perks, but snuffed by a rigid brick of exposition, long stretches of dialogue going in one ear and out the other. What matters most is that Cage fulfills an overdue hallmark in his career, owning this campy effort without hindrance. Both Hoult and Awkwafina balance out the villain’s haughty disdain with lighter humor, but nothing can overpower an actor well known for being a little over the top. Being Drac takes Cage well past that, a dream lived. Even if, at times, it was more like an incomprehensible nightmare. (C+; 3/5)
Renfield opens in theaters April 14; rated R for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use; 93 minutes.