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Nicolas Cage as Dracula is exactly as delightfully, deliriously over-the-top as you’d want him to be in “Renfield.”
After decades of metaphorically chewing the scenery, Cage gets to sink his teeth in quite literally as the preening Prince of Darkness. His wild-eyed delivery is full of startling outbursts and unexpected inflection, with sprinklings of charm to keep us off-guard. It’s a natural evolution 35 years after “Vampire’s Kiss,” as he’s now fully wallowing in this mythological monster’s unquenchable thirst.
Cage’s performance—a supporting turn since this movie is truly about Dracula’s titular underling—remains consistently entertaining, even when the film as a whole is less so. As Renfield, Nicholas Hoult serves as an amusing straight man: adorably flustered in a vintage Hugh Grant sort of way, with flashes of assertiveness when his character is called upon to kick ass. And he has to do that a lot: “Renfield” mixes understated comedy with insanely graphic violence in a way that’s too cartoonish to be shocking or scary. We’re talking severed limbs, exploding heads, and gushing torrents of blood. For the most part, this combination works, inspiring laughs and gasps in equal measure.
But Chris McKay’s film, from a script by Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”), undermines all that enjoyment with supporting players and subplots that aren’t nearly as compelling. The central dynamic in this contemporary telling of a familiar tale is that Renfield is sick of being stuck in a toxic, co-dependent relationship with his narcissistic boss. That’s a funny idea from the opening shot: a close-up of a nametag that says, “Hello My Name Is Renfield” as he sits in a circle at a self-help meeting. And the mundane humanization of these otherworldly figures calls to mind the deadpan humor of “What We Do in the Shadows.” But the material meant to beef up this story is so bland and underdeveloped it makes “Renfield” feel like a sketch concept stretched thin to feature length.
It has promise, though. McKay amusingly inserts Cage and Hoult’s portrayals of these characters into classic examples of the genre before establishing that they’re now living in New Orleans, looking for victims. They’ve set up shop in an abandoned hospital as Renfield seeks new bodies to feed his master, and Dracula struggles to regain his full strength. The makeup and visual effects are impressive throughout, as Dracula languishes in various states of gooey grotesquerie before returning to his typical flamboyant glory.
Along the way, and with the encouragement of his support group (led by an appealing Brandon Scott Jones with spot-on timing), Renfield realizes that a different life is possible for him—a happy one of his own. Hilarious details abound in production and costume design as Renfield seeks a cheerier, more colorful persona, far from the Gothic aesthetic that's defined him for the past century.
But then he gets sucked into a boring subplot involving Awkwafina as the lone cop in New Orleans who’s not corrupt. Her character, Rebecca, is seeking answers and vengeance for the death of her father, a legendary police officer. That’s pretty much all there is to her character; Camille Chen, as her FBI agent sister, gets even less to do. Awkwafina has an exasperated, no-nonsense delivery that’s amusing, and she and Hoult have a spiky chemistry—so much so that you’ll wish her involvement were more interesting. Similarly, Ben Schwartz gets to be obnoxious, and that’s about it as the striving, drug-dealing son of a cartel boss (Shohreh Aghdashloo in a paper-thin role and an array of fabulous power suits).
With this cast and this concept, there is a ton of potential here. The knowing, meta-exploration of Dracula lore is often quite clever. And “Renfield” can be extremely entertaining in sporadic bursts. But examining it in the sun's harsh light causes it to shrivel to dust.
Now playing in theaters.
Nicholas Hoult as R.M. Renfield
Nicolas Cage as Count Dracula
Awkwafina as Rebecca Quincy
Ben Schwartz as Tedward 'Teddy' Lobo
Adrian Martinez as Chris Marcos
Jenna Kanell as Carol
Shohreh Aghdashloo as Ella