If Stephanie Meyer ruined emo vampires for you, how about this slightly tweaked version, wherein a vampire’s familiar walks into a Codependents Anonymous meeting? That’s the premise of Chris McKay’s Renfield, and honestly, good for him. Few relationships spring to mind as being more toxic, what with the murder and isolation and indentured servitude for all of time. It’s no wonder Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is ready to escape his master’s pasty clutches. It’s a little more complicated, however, since his overbearing father figure slash narcissistic best friend slash demanding boss (shuffle as needed) isn’t any old vampire, but the vampire — Count Dracula himself (Nicolas Cage, buried under prosthetics that somehow only enhance his Nicolas Cage-ness). And believe it or not, he’s not really the Brené Brown type.
McKay, who has a long history with Cartoon Network’s after-hours Adult Swim programming, is clearly having a blast injecting the classic Dracula mythology with the goofily subversive dude-bro sensibility on which he cut his teeth. Some such elements work, like the introductory scene that sees Cage and Hoult digitally inserted into actual footage of Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation, Dracula. It’s a genuinely imaginative bit of exposition that makes the rest of the film’s reliance on snarky voiceover all the more disappointing. McKay also updates the classic Dracula setting from mysterious Eastern Europe to modern-day New Orleans, but proceeds to ignore the city’s rich history of voodoo and mysticism. Talk about a missed opportunity — this is the birthplace of Anne Rice, after all.
Renfield and Dracula’s toxic relationship makes up the bulk of the story, but there’s also a budding romance between Renfield and Officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a traffic cop who’s coming to terms with her father’s death in the line of duty and fuming at her corrupt colleagues. Turns out, the NOPD is in the pockets of the Lobo crime family, led with icy authority by Ella Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and significantly less authority by her inept son, Teddy (Ben Schwartz). Lastly, there’s Mark (Brandon Scott Jones), the all-too-inviting leader of a local Codependents Anonymous support group where Renfield is introduced to the power of affirmations. Perhaps predictably, all of these components make for a somewhat messy finished product: Is Renfield a rom-com, a police procedural, a horror movie, or a thriller?
Luckily, this hodgepodge is firmly anchored by Cage, who channels the unbridled wackiness he brought to his last foray into the undead underworld, 1988’s indelible Vampire’s Kiss. Cage’s Dracula oozes camp the way his razor-sharp teeth do blood. (You could even say this was a role he was born to play, since he actually cites it as one of the reasons he became an actor.) With his non-sequitur chuckles, fey but freakish mannerisms, and velvet-heavy ensembles, his performance is exactly what you’d expect from a famously extravagant actor digging into a highly theatrical villain. Luckily, the supporting cast is every bit as committed, as is the special effects team (not surprising given that the story was created by Robert Kirkman, one of the guys behind the gorefest known as The Walking Dead.) And it turns out, being a familiar isn’t just about luring innocents to their untimely death; eating insects also grants them near-superhuman strength. Chomp on a couple of spiders and before you can say “type O-negative,” Renfield is impaling dudes with another dude’s arms, which doesn’t make any actual sense but sure looks cool.
This off-the-charts squelch factor is occasionally at odds with the rest of the film, particularly the Codependents Anonymous support group scenes. While still played for laughs, they hint at more serious underlying issues that are all too familiar for folks with self-destructive tendencies, a habit of negative self-talk, or low self-esteem in general (so, pretty much everyone). McKay even generates some thought-provoking questions with regards to Renfield’s own moral compass and sense of victimhood. Most folks this side of, say, Ted Bundy, would look like Mister Rogers compared to Dracula, but Renfield reminds viewers that it’s not so simple: he actively chose to abandon his family and devote his life to killing innocent people for all eternity — how exactly does that make him better than Dracula himself? These questions (and their less fantastical real-world applications) are worth exploring in more detail, but not before a mobster gets his ribs kicked in with impossible precision. This tension between competing tonalities makes Renfield a consistently entertaining but undeniably uneven entry into the vampire movie canon. But Cage and company are so clearly having the time of their (undead) lives with the material that it feels petty to quibble too much. Maybe just save that part for therapy.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.