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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Renfield"

Because Nicolas Cage plays Dracula in Renfield, you’d be forgiven for thinking the movie was going to be fun. But inspiration clearly stopped at the casting, because in scene after scene and line after line of Renfield, you watch as any potential for a wild, unpredictable horror-comedy is gradually drained away until all that’s left is a limp, lifeless husk. How could the filmmakers have screwed this up so badly? For a movie that’s so bloody, it’s awful bloodless.

The movie started life a decade ago, when Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, reportedly pitched Universal a comedy from the perspective of Dracula’s tireless manservant Renfield. If Kirkman’s original idea possessed a satirical edge, it was no doubt dulled by producers and financiers who wanted this to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

This is, of course, assumption on my part, but I don’t think I’m far off, because Renfield has so many sequences that are weirdly truncated and filled with off-screen dialogue recorded in post-production to patch up plot holes. This is a movie that has clearly been chopped up and pieced back together using studio notes as tape.

Whereas Bram Stoker’s Renfield was maniacal and animalistic, Nicholas Hoult here plays him as a sensitive, put-upon gofer. A once virtuous family man who was seduced by Dracula and is forever cursed to be the bloodsucker’s so-called familiar, Renfield now spends his joyless existence dragging lowlives back to an abandoned New Orleans hospital where Dracula feeds on them. And Drac is the boss from hell: condescending, overbearing, unappreciative. One night, Renfield stumbles into a support group for people in toxic relationships, and he wonders if he can self-actualize himself out of this mess.

A funny concept, right? Unfortunately, Renfield then gets sidetracked with a shockingly routine plot involving Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ben Schwartz as a mother-and-son crime dynasty, and Awkwafina as a beleaguered cop who both wants to take down the crime family and investigate the mysterious death of her father.

Consider the infinite possibilities that the original premise suggests. Consider how many wild scenarios Renfield and Dracula might have encountered in the century they’ve been together. Consider how many relationships that could be developed with the people in the support group; they’re all glorified extras here. Consider how disappointing that, with so much potential, we’re stuck watching a boring, unfunny cops and criminals story.

There are a few inspired gags here and there (a throwaway joke involving a welcome mat gets maybe the biggest laugh), and I enjoyed a few of the cartoonish action set pieces in which heads are severed, limbs are ripped off and then used as projectiles, and bodies explode like John Cassavetes at the end of The Fury. And Nicolas Cage, who—and I mean this as a compliment—was born to play Dracula, is giving it his all in the small amount of screen time he has.

But this is a lame, lame movie undeserving of his gonzo intensity, and I suspect there’s a smarter, snappier, funnier version of Renfield floating around out there. Maybe it can still be made.


Nathan Weinbender is one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.