Renfield Review: A Bloody, Batty Cage Fight

Nicolas Cage has cited numerous inspirations for his take on Count Dracula, from Christopher Lee to his own father. As it comes across in Renfield, though, he plays most like the final form of Peter Loew, the toxic, delusional executive infamously played by Cage himself in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss. The central joke of that film is that despite his wealth-derived status, Loew was such a failure that he couldn’t even be a vampire correctly. Had Loew actually succeeded, and after decades as a real nosferatu become the kind of narcissistic boss who could successfully corral lifelong sycophants, he would be this Dracula.

In tongue-in-cheek flashbacks, Cage and Nicholas Hoult are seen digitally inserted into 1931’s Dracula, replacing Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. For those, Cage directly impersonates Lugosi. In present-day scenes, however, there’s a trace of Peter Loew’s fake English accent mixed with Cage’s natural drawl. When first we see him in color, he’s a hideously scarred and burned creation under inch-thick, Fangoria-ready latex. For mere mortals, emoting through all that and massive spiked dentures might pose a challenge. However, Cage will not be so easily contained.

It’s Renfield (Hoult) who eats the cockroaches this time around, although they appear to be mostly CG, as opposed to the real one devoured by Cage back in the day. The twist to the mythology is that eating bugs – whether insects or arachnids does not matter – gives him temporary superpowers and longterm immortality, even though he can still be wounded. Permanently so if he can’t find the time to either power up with more bugs, or rejuvenate himself from Dracula’s blood.

Tasked with bringing the Count fresh corpses, Renfield tries to seek out only abusive jerks for victimhood, found through the testimonies of their co-dependents at his self-help group. But virtue matters; the blood of innocents runs tastier and more potent, and Dracula’s losing his patience for some. Trying to pluck up the evil intent to do as ordered, Renfield instead blunders into an attempted mob hit, and sees officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) stand up to a thug who holds a gun to her head. Inspired by her courage, Renfield saves her life and decides to leave his own abuser, getting his own apartment and switching out his threadbare 1931 suit for more modern colors and cuts.

Cage has downplayed his role in some interviews, but fear not. His Dracula gets plenty of screen time, with an abundance of new meme-able moments and Cage-isms in the making. Hoult’s role seems less showy, but his specifically British awkwardness and good manners in the face of total carnage draw as many laughs from his underplaying as Cage does from overplaying.

And the carnage level is ridiculous: at times this feels like a Troma movie on an unlimited budget. Director Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie) periodically imitates Tod Browning’s classic expressionist lighting when filming Cage, but his aesthetic is more Gregg Araki, with bright contrasting colors and heavy bloodshed bringing back memories of The Doom Generation and Nowhere, albeit without the sexiness.

Indeed, despite his history as a leading man, Cage plays arguably the least sexy Dracula since Max Schreck in the original Nosferatu. This movie is far more interested in his codependent relationship with Renfield, but takes care to depict it as absolutely platonic, with Dracula doing heavy guilt-shaming and gaslighting rather than anything like seduction. Sparks don’t really fly between Renfield and Rebecca either – as in Shang-Chi, Awkwafina’s once again a leading lady who is just friends with the lead.

There’s something very of-the-moment about this take. In public life, we see numerous toxic narcissists and former cultists trying to turn on them. Elsewhere, the pandemic lockdowns caused many workers to reckon with irresponsible, abusive bosses. As catharsis, the movie offers brutal massacre after brutal massacre, in ways that sometimes make the Mortal Kombat games look restrained. It’s an aesthetic that’s as over-the-top as Cage himself, but as you might imagine, he keeps up. It may be based on a Robert Kirkman idea, but unlike those other adaptations of his about ambulatory undead, this one actually is all about the gore.

If there’s any bad news here, it’s that Renfield really isn’t anything more than it was expected to be. But that’s also the good news. Since Cage has a tendency to say yes to almost anything, it can be a crapshoot as to whether the rest of the movie delivers to his level. Cage as Dracula, fortunately, is all he ought to be, in a cinematic reality where he fits quite nicely.

Grade: 4/5

Renfield is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Recommended Purchase: Dracula (Deluxe Hardbound Edition)

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