Renfield (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Now he gets sick of serving his master

“Renfield” is an amusing horror comedy film inspired by one of the most famous horror stories of all time: Bram Stocker’s “Dracula”. Instead of that infamous blood-sucking count, the movie focuses more on his daunted servant’s toxic relationship with the count, and it generates some nice bloody laughs as its long-suffering hero struggles for self-esteem as well as redemption.

The opening part of the film, which hilariously utilizes several scenes from Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931), quickly establishes our titular hero’s long relationship with his master. Since he became the servant of Dracula (Nicholas Cage) in the late 19th century, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has dutifully served his master as much as possible, but he has not been appreciated much by his master, who usually cares more about following his insatiable urge for more blood. Even when he and Renfield have to hide in an abandoned hospital building in New Orleans, Louisiana after he gets burned quite seriously in the middle of his latest peril, Dracula still demands a lot from his servant without showing any gratitude or appreciation at all, and Renfield has no choice but to try to obey to his master despite his longtime misery and unhappiness.

For getting any possible victim to be served to his master, Renfield joins a local support group consisting of people struggling with each own toxic relationship, and that is where he comes to have a sort of revelation while listening to those support group members and their sincere counselor. As seeing that he is not alone at all in case of dealing with problematic relationship, he feels a bit better than before, and he also begins to consider whether he can actually get himself freed from his master, though his master is certainly not so pleased when he senses that his servant is not as loyal and obedient as he had been for years.

Meanwhile, Renfield also gets himself into a big local trouble. While he is looking for any victim as fresh and innocent as his master desires, he happens to come across a local police officer named Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). For many years, this plucky female police officer has been quite determined to avenge her cop father’s death by a powerful drug organization, so she willingly goes all the way for justice when a good chance comes to her by coincidence, and that drug organization naturally attempts to eliminate her by any means necessary. Thanks to his superpower activated via eating bugs, Renfield saves not only Rebecca but also several innocent bystanders around him, and his violent but righteous act makes him all the more determined to get his own life outside Dracula’s toxic influence than before.

The screenplay by Ryan Ridley, which is developed from the story by co-producer Robert Kirkman, has some naughty absurd fun from Renfield’s attempt toward normal life. Nicholas Hoult, who has been usually good at playing quirky comic characters, willingly hurls himself into lots of absurdity, but he also plays his character as straight as possible for bringing some gravitas to the story as well as his character. We often laugh for his character’s comic struggles along the story, but we also come to root for him more than expected, and Hoult’s effective deadpan performance carries the film to the end even when it comes to lose some of its narrative momentum during its clumsy last act.

As Hoult’s grand evil counterpart, Nicholas Cage, who once appeared with Hoult in Gore Verbinski’s “The Weather Man” (2005), surely has a lot of bloody fun with his diabolically baroque character. As he did memorably in several other movies such as David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” (1990), Cage goes for his own full-throttle mode to our delight and entertainment, but he also looks quite committed as usual, and you will admire how he takes a risk without not being afraid at all of looking as hammy as Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. In addition, you will be all the amused if you remember that he once appeared in a little movie called “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988) and later produced “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000), where he could have played the titular vampire but stepped aside for Willem Dafoe instead.

It is a shame that the movie does not bring much substance to the rest of the story, and many of its supporting performers are often not utilized well on the whole. While Awkwafina manages to fill her thankless supporting character with her own presence, Ben Schwartz tries to chew his scenes as much as Cage as one of the secondary villains in the film, but his result feels inconsequential compared to Cage’s dedicated overacting. In contrast, Shohreh Aghdashloo, a wonderful Iranian actress who has always been reliable since her unforgettable Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Vadim Perelman’s “House of Sand and Fog” (2003), handles her ruthless crime boss character with gusto, and you may wish that the movie utilized more of her talent.

Directed by Chris McKay, “Renfield” is a fairly enjoyable one-joke comedy horror film, but I must confess that I cannot help but think of several alternatives right now. If you are not so satisfied with how New Orleans does not look that vivid or colorful in the movie, I suggest you that you should check out Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest film “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” (2021), which does a far better of job of presenting New Orleans with palpably colorful mood and details. If you look for a truly hilarious movie about vampire, I instantly recommend Taika Waititi’s “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014), and I also urge you to check out the acclaimed TV sitcom series developed from this very funny comedy horror movie.

Nonetheless, I also must admit that I was amused enough when I watched “Renfield” today. Right before watching it, I had to endure the sheer mediocrity of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” (2023), so I was certainly in the need of watching anything funny enough for me, and “Renfield” worked for me despite its several weak aspects. Yes, this is not exactly original, but I assure you that Cage and Hoult will not disappoint you at least.

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