Nearly as long as there has been cinema, there have been Dracula movies. The unlicensed take, Nosferatu, from 1922, was the first major one, though technically beat to the punch by the Hungarian 1921 film Dracula Halála (sadly mostly lost to time). Since then there have been countless adaptations and takes on the character, and many famous actors have occupied the role. While most adaptations are horror films, there have also been action films, comedies, and more. He is one of pop culture’s most enduring icons and nearly synonymous with the monster that is vampire.
Less focus been given to the character of Renfield. In the original novel, he is an insane asylum patient who eats vermin to absorb “their life force.” Dracula finds him useful for getting into the asylum, and manipulates him to his ends by sending him bugs to eat. Over time Renfield has morphed into more of a direct aid and servant to Dracula, and sometimes his insanity runs deeper. In the famed 1931 adaptation from which this movie more or less derives, his character partially replaces the function of Jonathan Harker’s character, a real estate agent trying to make a deal who becomes Dracula’s thrall.
This film takes place over 100 years later. Renfield is still stuck as a servant of Dracula, forced to drag the monster to New Orleans to satisfy Dracula’s need to kill and feed, which draws too much attention in the modern world. What follows is a sadly uneven work from director Chris McKay. While the central conceit — Renfield trapped in a co-dependent relationship — is rife with potential as it highlights a mostly unheralded part of the Dracula lore, it is sadly wasted on a film with a stupid script that finds only occasional laughs.
The highlight of the film is, of course, Nicolas Cage as Dracula. While Cage’s acting is of questionable quality at times, there’s no question he knows how to ham it up. Dracula is a character suited to ham, and Cage uses his most over-the-top line deliveries to great effect. In isolation, Ben Schwartz‘s comically ridiculous character is also funny. Nicholas Hoult and Awkwafina are more serviceable than anything.
While there are some great comic hijinks, the film has an inconsistent tone. Sometimes it wants to be a farce with crazy violence and a winking nod. Then it attempts to navigate a crime plot, but poorly, as it meshes weirdly with the choice to examine the Dracula/Renfield relationship under the modern lens of a toxic relationship. These elements sometimes work well alone, but together they make for a sloppy film.
The film’s script is full of convenience to the point of insult. There’s one scene of two characters talking that is so full of tropes it almost feels intentional, but the film doesn’t deliver on that from a filmmaking perspective. McKay’s direction is amateurish and sophomoric. We cut from scene to scene with little intentionality and some noticeably bad editing. It feels like a film forced to be 90 minutes that’s missing a ton as a result. While the little nods to the classic Universal Dracula are nice, they feel more like something done out of obligation than true love.
Renfield isn’t all bad, despite the general color of this review. It does have its funny moments, and Cage is a scene-stealer. Setting the film in New Orleans, Cage’s favorite city, attempts to feed into that energy, but with nowhere near enough consistency. One wishes there were more thought and effort to deliver one idea, be consistent with it, and make the whole movie feel satisfying.