Synopsis: Count Dracula’s lackey R. M. Renfield finds a new lease on life in modern-day New Orleans when he falls in love with Rebecca Quincy, a traffic cop, and decides to finally stand up to his creator in hopes of finally breaking free of his servitude.
Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Bess Rous, Brandon Scott Jones, Caroline Williams
Director: Chris McKay
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: In 2017, Universal Studios hoped a modern version of The Mummy would kick off a new Dark Universe and allow them to open their vaults to let their cadre of monsters out to play. Starring Tom Cruise and female mummy Sofia Boutella, the drab movie unfortunately unraveled all these plans before they could even get started, which was unfortunate because the projects in the works sounded kind of fun. (Angelina Jolie as The Bride of Frankenstein? Sign. Me. Up.) So, the Dark Universe faded away, and the executives have had to rethink their strategy to reinvent their existing IP…because we all know original ideas are hard to come by.
Along with Frankenstein, Universal has always been keen on finding a way to resurrect Dracula in some form. When the enjoyable but dismally received Dracula Untold failed to go anywhere in 2014, plans by the studio to revisit The Count in a larger tentpole franchise were quickly dashed before they could even come up with subsequent titles. Now, with the rise of comic crossover vampire fare like What We Do in Shadows (both the film and television series), we have Renfield, which has taken the unique approach of making Dracula a supporting character, bumping his henchman up to leading man status.
As it turns out, Renfield may be the lifeblood needed to get innovative minds working again for the next stage of Universal Monster flicks. While hardly the most sophisticated (or, let’s be honest, original) take on in the horror-comedy oeuvre, it’s an absolute bloody blast that gobbles up 93 solid minutes of ghoulish fun without making many compromises along the way.
With a nice nod (you could call it a wink) to the most famous Dracula of the past, screenwriter Ryan Ridley and director Chris McKay springboard Robert Kirkman’s original idea forward into the present. That’s where we find Renfield (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies, which has a similar feel) at a support group for those in unhealthy relationships. As Renfield listens to the woes of the men and women with toxic partners, he muses about his neverending bond with Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage, Color Out of Space), a demanding vampire he’s been bound to serve for over a century.
Due to his last great battle, Dracula is low on power and desperately needs the victims Renfield gathers from his meetings (all the deadbeat boyfriends that get brought up magically vanish after their significant others have a group share with Renfield in attendance) but after decades of mistreatment from his boss, Renfield dreams of being free from his employer. Things get dicey when he picks the wrong ex to whack, taking out one with ties to a powerful mob boss (Shohreh Aghdashloo, Run Sweetheart Run) who sends her goons after him, unaware that he has protection up his sleeve that’s literally out for as much blood as he can drink. Can Renfield survive long enough to get an exit interview with Dracula and not burn a bridge, or will his relationship with brusque cop Rebecca (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) get them all packed up in a coffin that never sees the light of day again?
There’s an old-school, throwback feel to Renfield that will give viewers the kind of significant thrill often missing from this genre. The action sequences (incredibly gory to such an extreme that they become visual jokes in and of themselves) are creative and staged with an eye on the funny bone, and Ridley’s script has had all the excess shaved off. What remains is a trim picture that works like a well-oiled machine on paper and is amped up by a cast of funny players and gilded by the lily of Cage, bringing his gonzo energy to the role of Dracula. It’s well known this is a character Cage has longed to play, and the further into the movie we get, the more we see how perfectly pitched an actor like Cage is for this role. Cage and Hoult work off of one another nicely, and their rapport is a prime factor as to why it’s believable this oddball pair has become inseparable over time.
I enjoyed Renfield’s attempt to think outside the box, building off what we already understand of the Dracula legacy and molding it with a present-day twist. If it falters, it’s in the finale, which doesn’t feel as well thought out as the first two acts. That’s likely due to some studio tinkering because you can feel some corporate shenanigans at work that curiously drain creative juices that had been flowing nicely up until that point. At least by then, you’re too invested in shaving off many points from the good graces Renfield has found itself in. With a wealth of humor and buckets of viscera to please hungry audiences, hopefully Renfield signals a positive bar raising in Universal’s latest attempt to mash their monsters into something fresh.