RENFIELD

★★★

AN UNFAMILIAR STORY FROM DRACULA’S FAMILIAR

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Joel Kalkopf
21st May 2023

There have been countless incarnations of Bram stoker's 'Dracula' over the years, so what better person to bring a fresh angle to the genre than the director behind 'The Lego Batman', Chris McKay. Starring in the role of Dracula for this project is none other than Nicholas Cage ('Con Air', 'Pig'), but this story belongs to his subservient and loyal familiar, the titular Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult, 'The Menu', 'Warm Bodies'). Acting alongside each other for the first time since 2005's 'The Weather Man', Cage and Hoult go toe-to-toe in 'Renfield', a film about how the tortured servant looks inwards for the first time in a long time, and wonders what else life has to offer outside of the Prince of Darkness.

The role of a familiar is simple; serve your master. This can of course range from ensuring the blinds are closed during the day, to providing piles of bodies for feasts and sustenance. Renfield has been doing Dracula's bidding for over 100 years now, so when we meet him for the first time, he presents as an understandably disheveled figure attending a support meeting for people in toxic and dependant relationships. Following Renfield's introduction, McKay generates superimposed images of Cage and Hoult within the frame of the 1930s version of the film. It's a fun and creative way of introducing this version of the character, as Renfield begins to question his role in Dracula's life and what greater purpose there may be for him. He's tired of killing people, so takes it upon himself to only kill those he feels deserves it, a task made easier once he eats live bugs that, in turn, give him supernatural powers. However, when gifting Dracula his victims, Dracula is disgusted at the gesture, wanting only pure bodies to feed on - such as nuns or a bus load of cheerleaders - in order to fulfil his true power.

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A series of unfortunate events leads to a chance meeting with Rebecca (Awkwafina, 'The Farewell', 'Crazy Rich Asians'), a cop who just wants to clean up the city, facing an uphill battle against crooked officers and the Lobo mob family. Together, Renfield and Rebecca will try to inspire each other to be better, to do better, and maybe even save the city while they're at it.

If this is all sounding very on the nose and familiar, that's because it is - until it isn't. 'Renfield' is full of typical motifs. There's the freeze frame on Renfield's face to explain "how did we get here?", the cop who lives in her father's shadow and is constantly reminded "your father was the best" and so on. But there is a self-awareness and fun brought to these ideas that prevents them from feeling stale, even though not quite fresh.

What does feel innovative and creative is the bloody, dynamic, comical and bloody violence. Yes I said bloody twice - it's really very bloody. This is not realistic blood, this is Tarantino blood-squirting-all-over-the-room-after-arms-being-pulled-off kind of blood which, dare I say, is really fun. All the action sequences are really enjoyable and I found myself leaning into everything that was going on. It was easy to follow, well crafted, and overall the highlight and selling point of the film.

As bombastic as the action is, the rest of the film doesn't quite meet its level of pop, and this for me is probably where 'Renfield' loses its way a little bit. The film comes alive when the violence breaks out, and while the rest of the film is fun, it just doesn't match the level of entertainment. There is a deleted scene that Hoult released on his socials of an entire dance sequence - and it's phenomenal. It's just the sort of thing that this film needed to maintain the dynamism and pop art feel, and it's a real shame it wasn't kept in the final cut. I found myself wanting in-between the action sequences despite wishing I wasn’t, simply due to the fact that the rest of the film felt a tad vanilla in comparison.

As bombastic as the action is, the rest of the film doesn't quite meet its level of pop, and this for me is probably where 'Renfield' loses its way a little bit.

While his role is very much supportive, Cage is brilliant as the Count, mastering the switch between terror and comedy like nobody else. He embodies the Christopher Lee-type vampire, but wonderfully throws in gestures and mannerisms that complement Hoult nicely and bring the edge of comedy when needed. Hoult as the pillar of the film is equally great, manipulating his posture and voice in a way that allows him to shift between servant and hero seamlessly. Ben Schwartz ('Sonic the Hedgehog') goes full Jean Ralphio (his character from TV's 'Parks and Recreation') as a member of the Lobo family so while we've seen his shtick before, it's no less entertaining.

Of all the iterations of Dracula, I really admire McKay's approach to this one. Audiences know Dracula and are used to him being the centre of the story, but 'Renfield' feels very much like a more human angle, and asks the questions of what the effect of Dracula has on those around him, and less about what he is himself.

I had a really good time with this film and while lacking in a lot of parts and perhaps even feeling shortchanged on what was promised, there's no denying that McKay's version of this classic character is fun to be around. Wonderfully gory and funny, and aided by an unhinged Cage having the best time onscreen, 'Renfield' may not sit amongst cinema's best Draculas, but it will at least challenge the approach and have a good time doing it.

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