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Review: 'Renfield'

The trailers for Renfield grabbed my attention. It looked to be an interesting angle on the age-old Dracula tale, seeing the story from the perspective of Dracula’s disgusting bug-eating slave of an assistant.

His character was only a creepy secondary character in Tod Browning’s timeless classic Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi. It was the original Dracula movie, the one that all subsequent Dracula movies and vampire movies would be compared to. It’s been a hard act to follow.

In fairness, there were all the Christopher Lee movies and of course Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) starring Gary Oldman. Dracula is one of those characters who never dies in the world of cinema despite his inevitable demise in the final reel.

It is a classic horror story that will be told and retold until the end of time. Audiences never tire of those menacing fangs and stylish black cape.

It’s a story we know all too well, which is why Chris McKay’s decision to tell it from the perspective of the sorrowful sidekick Renfield seemed to have so much potential, particularly if you turned it into a flat-out comedy, albeit one drowning in blood.

Nicholas Hoult seemed a perfect choice for the character Renfield. His work traces back to About a Boy (2002) and the offbeat zombie flick Warm Bodies (2013) in which he plays a handsome, huggable walking corpse, struggling not to eat the brains of his human love interest.

In Renfield, he’s that same, certifiably insane character from the 1931 Dracula movie who ends up in an asylum, eating insects. The opening scenes place Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage (as Dracula) in scenes from the original, black-and-white movie. It’s a clever reveal of original source material and an homage to a horror classic.

After all the years that followed, Renfield finds himself in the same thankless position providing victims and blood to his master. On some level, Renfield is an ode to everyone who has ever hated his or her boss and simply wants to move on.

Along the way, he encounters a no-nonsense, wisecracking officer of the law (played by Awkwafina) who becomes his partner in taking on and destroying Dracula.

The movie is less horror and drama than comedy and martial arts action. It’s high-energy, low-intelligence entertainment, all the way. The violence is intentionally over-the-top featuring gushers and geysers of blood. It’s what you might expect in a free-wheeling comedy of a movie about Dracula.

Much of the action features Renfield who has the superhuman strength to fight and kill dozens of assailants. In one scene, he rips an assassin’s arms off and then proceeds to beat him to death with them. It’s pretty bad-ass, and admittedly funny, if you think that people being ripped apart and beaten to death with their own severed limbs is funny. Let’s face it—comedy is pretty subjective.

This superhuman strength aspect of the Renfield character is a radical departure from the original Renfield character. As it turns out, bugs and insects are to Renfield what spinach is to Popeye. Eating bugs gives Renfield the strength of an army, making him practically invincible. In the end, we fear he will be no match for the Prince of Darkness.

This brings us back to Nicolas Cage as Dracula, one of the selling points of this movie. Cage fans will not be disappointed. It’s a role he’s been wanting to, forgive me, sink his teeth into for quite a while. He’s crazy. He’s terrifying. In theatrical terms, he chews up the scenery. It’s a great role for Nicolas Cage. The problem here is his performance is pretty one-dimensional.

The original Dracula was menacing but he also possessed a haunting undercurrent of sexuality and eroticism. You could argue it might be hard to weave this into a flat-out comedy romp, but it’s interesting the Dracula character in Renfield has no real romantic interests.

It’s a movie content to crank up the action and volume with bat-out-of-hell energy. For the record, the visual and audio effects were quite good at times.

Renfield is a movie with a lot of splash and not a lot of soul. It’s not that the movie sucks (sorry, that was unavoidable), it’s just that it lacks any real heart, and in any good Dracula movie, you need something to drive a stake through in the end.


Renfield is in theaters now.

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