Genre movies come as a hybrid mix of their own now as we watch them eventually morph into superhero movies. But when it comes to horror comedies – something that we’ve been seeing less and less of lately – that sort of treatment can actually lend itself to something immensely entertaining. In my last week’s review of “The Pope’s Exorcist,” I talked about how the film had resorted its entire third act into a mindless steadfast of CGI action at the cost of its genre conventions. The new vampire comedy, “Renfield,” by Chris McKay, dedicates huge chunks of its cordial runtime to a similar steadfast of unflinching gore. As you can say, it is indeed greatly entertaining to watch, but the film has other flaws.
The movie tells the playful gory story of Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), who is Count Dracula’s so-called servant. His job, for years, has been to make sure that his bloodthirsty boss’s supernatural powers remain intact. But after being on a killing spree, Renfield now needs to find a new hideout in order to keep a step ahead of the authorities. Despite being more than a century old, he has unnaturally preserved his eternal youth and now endows Dracula (Nicolas Cage) with an abandoned hospital basement in New Orleans.
But because of being horribly burned in a mystical accident, Dracula asks Renfield to serve his boss. Of course, there’s nothing that some human blood can’t fix, and so the faithful servant attends meetings of a local codependency support group. However, rather than acting as a means to please his boss, the support group actually leads Renfield to see through the narcissistic tendencies of his boss.
With a breakneck pace, Chris McKay directs the film while retaining a lot of the pulp (and gore!) in the story. Characters constantly shift locations without ever letting the logistics counter the heightened world of the film. The director’s extensive background in animation especially helps with the action, and so do the sets that feel true to the movie. There are especially some surprising nods to anime sprinkled throughout, and it’s only elevated by the absurdity of not just the action but also the reason behind it. However, there’s an entire subplot that I didn’t mention, which feels like it wasn’t needed at all in the movie.
While contemplating his boss’ desires, Renfield soon finds himself facing off against a young gangster called Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), the ultra-rich scion of the city’s main crime family. Teddy also has a tenacious grip over the police department, and that’s what brings him to lead an ambush against a young officer, Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). Renfield saves her, which leads to the two together in a subplot as flimsy and cheesy as Dracula’s mannerisms.
Quincy, coping with the expectations laid down by her own late father, who was a police officer, shows the potential to serve as an interesting character. Although I understand the choice of having her in the movie, as it helps Renfield see through some sort of moral baseline, it just doesn’t feel as engaging as watching the dynamic of Dracula and Renfield unfold.
That brings me to Nicolas Cage, one of Hollywood’s biggest actors who has long been outspoken about his desire to play Dracula in a film. If you’re a fan, there’s no doubt that his over-the-top performance here is going to work magic for you. But there simply isn’t enough, and that’s where “Renfield” comes across as a film with studio notes written all over it. The humor isn’t slapstick, and it feels much more snappy and self-aware.
The most interesting recurring theme in the movie remains in Dracula’s attempt to persuade Renfield to remain in his service by resorting to threats. It’s the extension of this fear that leads Renfield to achieve things he doesn’t yet realize that he doesn’t want in the first place. But the crisis of conscience that Renfield goes through once this realization about his narcissistic, manipulative boss dawns upon him should’ve been explored more. After all, it is indeed an idea in the age of layoffs and toxic work environment that should’ve found its echo, especially in a film where the promise of recontextualizing an old story seemed too exciting.