It’s somewhat baffling when Renfield, a film featuring Nicolas Cage as Dracula, introduces a crime plot early on. Why does this movie that’s centered on Dracula’s long-suffering “familiar,” an immortal assistant granted a fraction of Dracula’s power to better serve the dark lord, tell a crime story centering action set-pieces instead of a horror story centering on suspense sequences? It’s a question I never came up with an answer for, and the movie doesn’t do much to explain that choice either, but it does a decent job of justifying it.
The film follows Dracula’s titular familiar, Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), as he struggles with the codependent relationship, he’s trapped in with the prince of darkness and, through pure happenstance, becomes a crucial part of the investigation into New Orleans’ greatest crime family.
The first half of that premise could be interesting if the film were willing to dive into the homoeroticism inherent to Dracula and Renfield’s relationship and draw out the horror of abusive relationships. Instead, the film sidesteps what could have been an exciting new exploration of their relationship to hit on a one-note joke that’s also somehow the film’s emotional crux. Thankfully, the crime plot, which isn’t in the least original, delivers some delightfully bloody and over-the-top action sequences.
You Can’t Have Abuse Cake and Eat It Too
The film opens with Renfield at a support group meeting for people struggling with codependency; he sits in the back, nodding his head along with a woman telling an all too real story of abuse. It’s a bold idea to consider Dracula and Renfield this way, as a long-term relationship not only of supernatural domination but also psychological and emotional. And it could make for a fantastic premise for a genuinely scary and affecting horror movie. But the film can’t seem to decide whether it wants to take its interpretation of their relationship seriously or mock the self-actualization methods of this particular support group.
The film’s emotional heart is essentially the same as a coming-of-age film, as the immortal Renfield must tear himself away from Dracula’s control and develop his identity. There’s a version of that story that works, but for that emotional arc to succeed, the film needs to earnestly engage Renfield’s journey to self-actualize.
What the film actually does is seemingly point and laugh at the ways that Renfield attempts to break free. There’s a snideness to the scenes of Renfield and the rest of the support group he visits saying their self-esteem-building affirmations. When Renfield attempts to remove himself from Dracula and gets his own apartment, he covers the walls with the kinds of inspirational posters that have been meme-fodder for more than a decade.
That undercutting would be disappointing but understandable if the film entirely committed to making a joke of its emotional premise, but it seems to want it both ways. There are scenes of Dracula spouting lines that are literally textbook abuse, including that no one else will care for Renfield and that it is, in fact, Dracula who is the victim in their relationship. These scenes are uncomfortable not only because they might be triggering to anyone who has experienced this kind of abuse but also because the movie seems to be taking the problem of abuse seriously while mocking a possible solution.
Blood, Guts, and Guns
Those issues aside, which some audiences may fairly not be able to set aside, there is a decent by-the-numbers action crime comedy in this movie, ostensibly about Dracula. The crime narrative follows New Orleans cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who is desperate to take down the reigning crime family in the city after they killed her father. Fate brings her and Renfield together when the family’s son attacks her and refuses to acquiesce to his demands, despite a gun in her face, inspiring Renfield to stand up to Dracula.
The story plays out in ways we’ve all seen before, as Dracula and the villainous humans form an alliance while Renfield and Quincy have to team up to take them down. But the surprisingly frequent action scenes are joyously gory fun. They deliver on choreography that’s far better than one would expect from a studio action comedy and top that choreography with what would be buckets of blood if it weren’t computer-generated. Here that computer-generated blood works as it overwhelms the screen in literal explosions of red, offering excitement on impact more than any texture to the combatants as their fights go on.
Renfield succeeds well enough as an action comedy, but it’s at odds with its source material (if it can be called that). Cage’s Dracula is never scary, instead opting to be silly the entire time, which Cage relishes. But even that silliness doesn’t quite work; his performance feels more like Mike Myers playing an Austin Powers villain than Nicolas Cage as Dracula. It leads the movie into a quagmire where Cage is simultaneously underused (he’s relegated behind the crime story) and doesn’t favorably compare to his earlier vampiric performance in Vampire’s Kiss when he is on screen.
Renfield never delivers on either the promise of a comedy starring Nicolas Cage as Dracula or a horror film about the most famous vampire of all time and while that’s alright in itself, it’s certainly disappointing.
SPECS: 6/10 SPECS
Renfield releases in theaters nationwide on April 14.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.