It sucks to work for Dracula — so says Chris McKay’s “Renfield,” the latest film to reincarnate Bram Stoker’s characters.
“Renfield,” intended to be a sequel to the 1931 film of the same name, puts a new spin on an old tale. For 90 years, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has toiled as the loyal servant to Count Dracula, played by a scene-stealing Nicolas Cage. But between abetting Dracula’s evil missions and scouting for human victims, the job is beginning to get to him.
Renfield, stressed and morally mortified, has joined a support group, led by the hilarious Brandon Scott Jones, for people in toxic relationships. He pretends Dracula is a horrible, codependent boss, and the group members nod in earnest solidarity — evil incarnate may as well be a “narcissist.” After a nasty spat with the Catholic church leaves Dracula scorched and vulnerable, Renfield takes the advice of his peers and puts himself first, padding around New Orleans and paving a new life.
If the premise sounds defanged and quirky, “Renfield” announces almost immediately that there will be blood. The film features gratuitous action montages à la “John Wick.” These scenes are formulaically cued by a slick guitar riff to rev up excitement, but what happens from there becomes delightfully unpredictable. Guided by an unquenchable bloodlust, every conflict is as gruesome as possible. Early minutes of the film show Dracula literally exploding while chunks of flesh fly in every direction; a few scenes later, Renfield gets his stomach sliced open, and his intestines tumble out like sausages.
The gore is constant and campy, as if taunting the audience to look away. Cage spends most of the movie caked in gross-looking fleshy prosthetics as Dracula’s skin slowly grows back. Whether he’s flashing his yellowed fangs or hovering over potential victims, Cage’s Dracula commands every scene. While Hoult has sensitive eyes and the kind of face that moves logically through emotions, Cage dials up the element of chance. He brings a chaotic, self-indulgent fervor to Dracula that the film ultimately, and unfortunately, underuses.
Although “Renfield” doesn’t take itself too seriously, it lacks focus. While Renfield considers separating from Dracula, there’s a lot more going on. Dracula cooks up his own plan for world domination. Rebecca, a New Orleans police officer played by Awkwafina, tries to put notorious crime family, the Lobos, behind bars to get justice for her late father. Meanwhile, Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz) tracks down Dracula per instructions from his Logan Roy-coded mother Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who seems to have plans of her own.
Juggling all the plots becomes disorienting. The film siloes its various stories for so long that, when they are finally braided together, it feels sudden and clumsy, as if a fourth of the movie might be missing. “Renfield” culls clever and fun moments, but its overall cohesion spins out and wears thin.
To take down Dracula, Renfield teams up with Rebecca. They talk to each other in feel-good maxims too generic to be apropos of anything. (For instance, Rebecca recurrently tells Renfield that he can be a hero, but the remarks come off strangely pandering — as if “Renfield” might be the kind of sentimentalist superhero movie that already saturates the market.) Romantic potential shadows Renfield and Rebecca’s relationship in faint ebbs and flows, but neither Hoult nor Awkwafina can muster enough chemistry to stick the landing. Their relationship, like most parts of the movie, is too condensed.
“Renfield” has a bloody blast folding contemporary woes into a mythical context. The tongue-and-cheek tone makes room for wit and an iconic Lizzo needle drop. Despite the disappointing lack of Nic Cage and the stiff sets which feel like amusement park lobbies, the film isn’t so offensive it needs a stake through the heart — perhaps just another pass through the editing room.