Review: Renfield

Director:  Chris McKay

Stars:  Awkwafina, Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage

People talk – or, at least, they type – of the culturally damaging/nullifying effect of the MCU on modern cinema. The blandness. The safety. The ubiquity. And it’s easy to join that conversation and echo those sentiments without really seeing the negative imprint beyond the reduction of choice at your local multiplex. But then something like Renfield comes along and it’s far easier to see the wider detrminent. Here we have a movie, ostensibly a horror comedy, that templates itself on the Marvel mould, taking something as rich and filled with potential as Bram Stoker’s Dracula – already adapted ad infinitum – and running it through the superhero movie meat-grinder. Sure. Why not? Every other iteration of Dracula has been done. Marvel itself even has, ahem, Morbius.

Why not? Because Renfield wishes it were as good as the humdrum embarrassment that was Morbius.

A 90 minute movie that essentially boils down to one long “Well, THAT just happened!” look to camera, Renfield tells the present-day story of the Count’s infamous bug-eating manservant. Here played with floppy-haired affability by Nicholas Hoult, Robert Montgomery is residing in New Orleans, nursing his terrible master (Nicolas Cage) back to health after another calamitous run-in with do-gooders. Weary of his duties, Renfield has fallen in with a support group for people in dependent relationships and, for the first time in decades, is encouraged to take back control of his life.

Hoult guides us into the movie with an irksome “wait, let me go back to the beginning” type narration/flashback framework, which at least allows the movie it’s one sequence of semi-charm; superimposing Hoult’s visage and that of Nicolas Cage over archive footage from the ’30s Tod Browning flick. From there we’re woven a consistently moronic and banal tale of Renfield’s run-ins with New Orleans organised crime, and Awkwafina’s incorruptible street cop Rebecca Quincy.

Director Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie) tries his best to navigate his way through a boilerplate script that seems to be written in case every single line might make it into the movie’s trailer. While the edit is brisk (and continuity-averse), this sense of hyperactivity and bland promo sass quickly engenders an immense feeling of fatigue. The 90 minutes of Renfield feels infinitely longer, especially as the film’s kookiest selling point – Cage as Dracula – is kept largely to the margins. Teamed with the right director (a Werner Herzog or a Panos Cosmatos), Cage’s eccentricities can create pure electricity. McKay isn’t such a match, and Cage’s routine mostly resembles Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil with a cape and a skin condition. McKay lingers on this goofy act as though allowing the audience to compose themselves from laughing. The reality was – for me at least – an uncomfortably quiet theatre throughout.

The bigger irk is the decision to treat Renfield’s arc like a pedestrian superhero origin story, accentuating the powers he receives from his bug-eating so that it temporarily turns him into a crime-fighting badass. None of this is supposed to be taken seriously, I know, but it’s such a clear lean toward a grossly oversaturated market that it feels terminally uninteresting. And, of course, it’s only a matter of time before we’re gifted some superpowered henchmen to level the playing field. The fight sequences feel like they’ve been choreographed by a 12-year-old (one stuntman seemingly shits himself to death). And while a couple of sight gags and slapstick routines raise a smirk, the majority is just too inane to indulge.

The potential MVP is Shoreh Aghdashloo, matriarch of the Lobo family whom Renfield picks a fight with. She’s vamping harder than Cage, and could’ve made a memorable villain. But the movie instead chooses to magnify her son, Teddy (Ben Schwartz); a rote mobster you’ll have forgotten before leaving the cinema. Add in a number of minor characters who are simply insufferable (top of the list: Brandon Scott Jones’ shrill group leader Mark) and Renfield seriously lacks the goods to keep an audience on it’s side. The script hammers its self-empowerment bit to death, and no amount of bodies popping like blood balloons can really make up for the litany of irritants coursing by. And, inexcusably, Renfield wastes New Orleans. There’s really no sense of such a vibrant city here or its incredible culture of food and jazz. Instead we get jokes about… ska???

A couple of points are won back by the production design team, who at least come up with something striking for Dracula’s lair in the depths of a dilapidated hospital (imagine the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones but replace swords with transfusion blood bags), and Hoult’s gusto is somewhat endearing. Regardless of the project he always commits. But if you’re after a batshit Nicolas Cage vampire flick, there’s already Vampire’s Kiss; one of the most insane and peerless movies in his vast and varied canon. Just go find that and steer clear of this feeble facsimile of Marvel mawkishness.

2 of 10

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