Renfield Review: Nicolas Cage's Wacko Dracula Deserves A Better Movie

There are some ideas too good to pass up, and "Nicolas Cage playing Dracula" has to be near the top of the list. Cage is a singular performer; an actor who has built a name for himself by twisting expectations and embracing the weird and wild. "Nouveau shamanism" is how Cage once described his acting style, although he later admitted he just made the term up because "it sounded cool." Whatever you want to call Cage's style, it's fair to say there are very few actors like him. Not all of his movies are good, mind you. In fact, lots of them are downright bad. And sometimes he seems bored with the work at hand; cashing a check, as it were. But when he finds the right role to sink his teeth into, Cage is a whirlwind; a strange, otherworldly being who behaves in a manner our puny mortal minds can't quite comprehend. 

Such is the case with Cage's take on Dracula in "Renfield." The idea of Nic Freakin' Cage playing Dracula sounds amazing, doesn't it? And Cage really delivers on the promise of such a concept, playing the infamous vampire as a mean-spirited jerk who gets off on belittling those beneath him — which, in his evil mind, is everyone. Cage's Count sees himself as a god — a god with machinations on world domination. Or something like that (it's very vague). 

Unfortunately, while Cage delivers, "Renfield" can't come close to matching the actor's wacko energy. It tries — oh, how it tries — but writer Ryan Ridley and director Chris McKay have a limp grasp on their material. Does everyone in this world know about Dracula? Do the Dracula movies exist? Does Bram Stoker's novel? Why is no one that surprised when they find out Dracula is a real dude? Why does a movie about Dracula and his sad-sack servant need an entire subplot about mobsters and crooked cops? Why does that subplot seem so painfully thin? Why does this feel like lousy a "Deadpool" knock-off (not that "Deadpool" is that good, to begin with) with vampires? Why are we watching any of this, especially since Cage's Dracula ends up being a minor player who only sporadically shows up to do his thing? 

'Can we so throw superhero crap into our Dracula movie?'

Many years ago, lawyer Robert Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) became the familiar of Count Dracula (Cage). That means he's Drac's servant, performing menial tasks (like dry-cleaning Dracula's cape) and bringing the vampire fresh victims to feast on. In return, Renfield has been given eternal life. But while Dracula gets his life from blood (and gore; lots of gore), Renfield survives by eating bugs. When he snacks on insects he's suddenly imbued with superpowers that enable him to flip around doing parkour while literally punching people's heads off their bodies. Why? Because the movie thinks it's funny, I guess? The Renfield in Bram Stoker's novel spent most of his time locked up in an insane asylum and I assure you he did not have superpowers, so this is a new thing. You can almost see the pitch meeting here, with a studio exec — chomping a cigar, no doubt — insisting that all the kids want to see these days are superheroes. "Can we so throw superhero crap into our Dracula movie?" this theoretical exec asks before wiping his mouth with a $100 bill. The answer: they can, and it'll be stupid!

In present-day New Orleans, Dracula is recovering from injuries sustained via vampire hunters. This means he needs even more victims to dine on to heal, which in turn means Renfield better get to work. But the nebbish familiar is starting to have doubts about his path in life. He's even attending a support group for people in abusive, dependent relationships. This is a great idea! Really! Renfield's long-suffering servant suddenly realizing his boss is a toxic, gaslighting abuser? On paper, that sounds like it could be something fresh; a take on the Dracula mythos we haven't really seen before. 

But "Renfield" doesn't really know what to do with this idea. Instead, it just repeats talking points over and over again — "Dracula is toxic!" — and moves on. We never even get the sense that Renfield ever liked Dracula. Were they close once before Renfield had his wake-up call? Or has he always been doubtful? A much smarter, better film would focus entirely on this angle, as well as have Renfield struggle with having delivered so many victims up to Drac over the years. Instead, "Renfield" turns into an absurd action movie with graphic (and admittedly somewhat amusing) violence and a woefully unfunny script. Every now and then, Hoult's Rrenfield cuts in with lame, exposition-heavy narration that stinks of having been added in post to clear up some loose ends. Indeed, it frequently feels like huge chunks of the movie are missing from "Renfield" — although I doubt adding them back in would improve much. 

Nic Cage's Dracula deserves better

In the midst of all this, Renfield gets caught up in a plotline involving local gangsters and corrupt cops who protect them. The only honest cop in town seems to be Rebecca (Awkwafina), who wants revenge for the murder of her cop father. Or something like that. It's all very thin; so thin you can see right through it. And while there are some laughs to be had — Ben Schwartz is particularly funny as one of the gangsters — they're cheap and obvious and lazy. It's the type of dreadful "So that happened!" humor that runs through the Marvel Cinematic Universe (there's that "Can't we make this a superhero movie?" angle again). 

Hoult is likable in the lead, and it's easy to sympathize with Renfield when he's so frequently, and so cruelly, belittled by Dracula. But the character is just as thin as the story. There's some vague stuff in there about how Renfield left his family a long time ago, before he became Dracula's slave, but it rushes by so quickly that it barely registers. What drives Renfield? Is it immortality? Maybe, or maybe he's been too beaten down by Dracula to fend for himself. Whatever the reasoning, none of it holds together. 

Thankfully, Cage's Dracula is there to keep us entertained. Decked out in stylish clothes (seriously, I want Drac's entire wardrobe), Cage's Dracula saunters and snickers his way through the movie like the biggest jerk you've ever met. His Dracula isn't a charming, seductive aristocrat; he's a bully with sharp teeth. The actor delivers his lines with a sneering, mocking tone that's both funny and even a little scary in its intensity. And Cage does a great job making his Dracula unlikable — we revel in the actor's antics, but we come to loathe his uber-mean Count. I found myself annoyed that such a fresh new take on Dracula, and from Nic Cage no less, is wasted on such a lousy movie. Nicolas Cage's Dracula deserves a better movie, and so do we.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10