Renfield 2023 Movie Review
The health benefits — like superpowers and something resembling immortality — might be great, but being Dracula’s familiar sucks. (Sorry not sorry.) Yet the titular Renfield (Nicholas Holt) is resigned to his fate as assistant to the world’s most famous vampire (Nicolas Cage), who is now recovering from his last skirmish with good-doers in New Orleans.
Keeping his healing master happy means finding fresh victims, which is what leads Renfield to a support group for people in toxic and abusive relationships. Don’t worry — it’s the abusers Renfield is targeting for Dracula’s feeding needs, but the messaging from the group leader (Ghosts and The Other Two breakout Brandon Scott Jones) eventually makes an impact, as Renfield realizes just how toxic his own relationship with Dracula is, and decides to break free of it.
Doing so isn’t going to be easy, though, as a local crime family led by Ella Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Teddy (Ben Schwartz) has gotten wise to the presence of Dracula in their city, causing problems not just for Renfield but for Rebecca (Awkwafina), a cop whose determination to bring down the Lobo gang is very personal. Protecting Rebecca from the hyper-violent gang while also dealing with his increasingly-more-powerful boss is going to get bloody — but after decades of dealing with Dracula, one thing Renfield is not is squeamish.
While fondly remembering Universal’s failed effort to create a MCU-esque franchise featuring its iconic monsters is always a great deal of fun, there’s another reason to be glad that nascent cinematic universe didn’t get off the ground: It probably would have prevented the making of Renfield. Directed by Chris McKay, and based on a story by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, the new Universal film proves to be a gloriously violent and thoroughly enjoyable action comedy, with a bold visual aesthetic that loves color as much as it loves seeing a person’s insides on the outside.
Really, Renfield is an Adult Swim cartoon come to life — which isn’t much of a surprise, as McKay cut his teeth as a director on Adult Swim series including Moral Orel and Robot Chicken, before going on to direct The LEGO Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War. Blood and body parts fly across the screen on a regular basis, as cops, gangsters, and more get torn apart in the film’s most brutal sequences, but all of it’s executed with a light comedic touch. If the idea of watching someone rip off a man’s arms and use said arms to beat another man to death sounds appealing… well, Renfield is here to provide.
For years now, Nicholas Hoult has established a nice little niche as an actor who can make the monsters he plays sympathetic, whether it be as the lead of the stellar zom-rom-com Warm Bodies or a War Boy who learns to love in Mad Max: Fury Road. (The argument could be made that other roles, like playing Beast in the latter-day X-Men films, might fall into a similar category, but Renfield officially completes his Triple Crown of Lovable Freaks, if you ask me.) There are actors like Colin Farrell and Brendan Fraser whose handsome features locked them into leading man roles early in their careers, despite later thriving as character actors. Hoult has somehow managed to avoid that trap, making him one of today’s more exciting stars to follow.
As for the rest of the cast, Awkwafina never really seems to fit into her cop costume — she doesn’t lack for on-screen commitment and her comic timing remains undefeated, but the character of Rebecca never stops feeling like “Awkwafina wearing a bulletproof vest.” Meanwhile, once you get past the cognitive dissonance of seeing Ben Schwartz as a cocaine-loving gangster, he proves to have an impressive amount of menace, and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s smooth coffee-flavored drawl, used here in the name of evil, is as delicious as ever.
Reports that Nicolas Cage stayed in character during production hardly come as a shock, because his commitment to the role is intense. What’s most fascinating about his performance, though — and the thing that reveals him as an Oscar-winning talent with full mastery of his craft — is that despite the prosthetic fangs and thick accent, you can always tell exactly what he’s saying. Given how many actors struggle to enunciate even without those limitations, it’s pretty impressive.
Cage has never been an actor you can accuse of phoning in a performance, and it’s a treat to see him commit so fully to the role, even if the film’s treatment of Dracula ends up being a little shallow. That’s less of a reflection on Cage’s performance and more on the film itself, which clocks in at a tight 93 minutes: In an era where Batman and John Wick movies casually clock in at the three-hour mark, that does have a lot of appeal.