‘Renfield’ Review

Over the last year, the concept has emerged on social media of the “Reddit Movie.” The term serves as a derogatory putdown of a film that replaces plot, dialogue, character development, jokes, etc. with quippy meta-humor and an irreverent disregard for the story’s emotional journey. Plenty of films have been slapped with the label, from the undeserving (Everything Everywhere All At Once, Deadpool) to the relatively accurate (Ready Player One, Bullet Train, Free Guy).

However, we finally have a new contender to compete for the title of “Most Reddit Movie Of All Time.” For Chris McKay’s Renfield, the Nicolas Cage-as-Dracula action/horror/comedy, is the epitome of the Reddit fanboy wasteland. And it has perhaps committed the ultimate sin in doing so: it wastes an all-time great Cage performance on one of the most dreadful scripts Hollywood has ever produced.

Over one hundred years ago, Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) encountered the terrifying vampire known as Count Dracula (Cage), and ultimately became his familiar. It is Renfield’s job to find humans for the immortal vampire to feast on, in exchange for eternal life – not to mention superhuman abilities when he eats bugs.

But after years of serving his inhuman master, Renfield has begun to regret his decisions, and to realize how manipulative and toxic working for Dracula truly is. And with the help of a codependency support group and a brave cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), he may be able to break the cycle and finally live a normal life. Unless, of course, Dracula were to team up with the New Orleans mob in a play for world domination.

Renfield’s shortcomings are prevalent almost within the first minute, in which the camera does a freeze-frame introduction to Hoult’s forced quirky voiceover performing an earnest “Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I found myself in this situation.” Renfield traffics in the type of pseudo-Rick and Morty adjacent nihilistic edgelord humor that has taken off in recent years. The problem is, if you’re not Dan Harmon, Siobhan Thompson, or any number of the talented writers that made Rick and Morty so successful, then you’re style of detached humor will leave you more akin to, well, Elon Musk.

And that’s precisely what this entire film feels like: a series of memes meant to appeal to someone as depressingly unfunny as Elon Musk. Characters reference when things move in slow motion. Characters speak in obnoxious, soul-crushing TikTok therapy speak. There are lengthy discussions on ska music. At one point, the following exchange is had to introduce Ben Schwartz’s Teddy Lobo character.

“Holy sh*t it’s Teddy Lobo!”
“Are you sure?”
“Out of the way! I’m Teddy Lobo!”
“Pretty sure.”

This is an infantile line that fits in more on an early aughts CBS comedy, not in a midbudget comedy in the Year of our Lord 2023. Now, not every joke is a failure. There are a few great visual gags and setups that elicit a chuckle (ok, maybe a guffaw or two). The makeup work on Cage’s Dracula after a bout in the sun is both a funny reveal and impressive. After changing his ways, Renfield goes on a shopping spree and buys the most hilariously awful sweater you’ll ever see. And one moment involves Renfield tearing off a guy’s arms and using them as knives – I can honestly say I’ve never seen that before. There’s promise here; it’s just not delivered to its fullest potential.

Perhaps the only decision worse than making this film a meta-comedy is the decision to make it an action meta-comedy. Renfield’s story is straightforward enough even in this ridiculous adaptation: he’s a weirdo goth henchman forced to kill to feed his master. Why, then, does he need to be a superhero with magic powers so he can beat up bad guys? It feels like an added layer to the story meant to distract from the thin characterization. How do we make up for the film’s one-joke premise? Simple: throw in an action subplot to spice things up.

Set aside for a moment that director Chris McKay’s ability to choreograph action is so terrible, or that the film’s editing is borderline unwatchable, the film has a deeper issue at hand: the scenes are incoherent. Making this film an action movie doesn’t make sense on any level. Renfield is not an action-based character. He is a weasely toad of a man, and to thrust him into a gang war makes no sense. Not for Renfield, not for Dracula, and certainly not for the insane Mexican Mafia led by the Iranian Shohreh Aghdashloo and her son, Ben Schwartz.

This tonal mismatch is made all the more depressing because, both dramatically and comedically, this is the role that Cage was born to play. Cage revels in the absurdity and the lore of this weirdo megalomaniac prince of darkness, imbibing him with the humor and menace and, yes, sexiness that Dracula deserves. Cage is a student of cinematic history, and the legacy of Lugosi hangs over his performance. Yet it is entirely his own, leaning into the traits that have made him the icon that he is.

On the one hand, there’s the dramatic tension and terror of his work in Leaving Las Vegas and Bringing Out The Dead. On the other hand, there’s the humor found in Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart. The result is something akin to his work in the 90s, like Face/Off; a work of true originality thanks to Cage taking a wild, yet realistically terrifying character and imbuing him with pure, unadulterated chaos. Each facial inflection, each line delivery speaks to Cage’s genius, and he elevates the broken film whenever he’s onscreen. It’s just a shame there’s not more of him.

Sadly, no other performer possesses Cage’s gift of transcending the script, so they mostly just flail in an attempt to keep from drowning. Hoult mostly succeeds as Renfield – while he suffers the most as the film’s eponymous character, what with the worst dialogue and having to carry the film on his shoulders, his naturally squirrely energy matches the eccentric character perfectly. Awkwafina, meanwhile, tries to improve her way out of bad dialogue, and mostly just makes things worse. The less said about a wasted Ben Schwartz and Brandon Scott Jones, the better. And for God’s sake, who put Academy Award-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo in this movie?

Renfield is a series of ideas and a great performance in search of a good movie. Perhaps your mileage with these sorts of “Well that just happened” meta-jokes is far more lenient than mine. Perhaps all you need for a good time is to watch Nicolas Cage chew the scenery – and maybe a few necks. However, the film’s ultimate death sentence is right there, in that last sentence. Nicolas Cage is giving a master class in scenery-chewing skullduggery, and the film can’t meet his level. And ultimately, that feels like a fate worse than death.


Renfield is now playing exclusively in theaters

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