Renfield Would Not Have Worked Without Nicolas Hoult, Says Director Chris McKay

Chris McKay's new horror/comedy "Renfield" has a whimsical premise: it seems that when Count Dracula was vanquished at the end of Tod Browning's famed 1931 feature film "Dracula," he wasn't quite dead. His weaselly assistant Renfield, played in 1931 by the incomparable Dwight Frye, absconded with Dracula's remains and went into hiding. Renfield, now immortal and made powerful by eating bugs, stalked the night to find victims for his still-barely-alive vampire master. Dracula would drink blood, slowly grow back from the brink, and eventually be a whole monster once again. Once empowered, however, Dracula would go a little hog wild and being drinking the blood of nobles willy-nilly. This would inspire another round of attacks, Dracula would be vanquished once again, and the cycle would repeat. 

"Renfield" catches up with Dracula (Nicolas Cage) and Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) in the modern day while Dracula is in one of his recovery periods. Renfield misses the days of nobility and class, resenting that he and the Count have to hide in dingy abandoned buildings. He also has come to see Dracula as a controlling presence in his life, a toxic boss he can't muster up the courage to say "No" to. A lot of "Renfield" centers on a series of recovery meetings for people trapped in controlling relationships. 

Cage is amazingly energetic as the Count, but in a recent interview with the Nightmare on Film Street website, director McKay clarified that it was Hoult's performance that made his film come together. Hoult, by turns terrified, hilarious, scary, and neurotic, is the glue that holds the film together. 


McKay was amused by the idea of Renfield and Dracula's relationship being depicted as unhealthy and codependent. One might easily envision Renfield as a mad ghoul, happy to kill animals in a limp attempt to imitate the bloodsucking horror of his master. McKay wanted to turn Renfield into a relatable, human sad sack instead of a ghoul. The juxtaposition of Renfield's insecurity with Dracula's evil was the crux of the film's comedy. McKay said: 

"Yeah, the idea of telling a Dracula story — not in the traditional way we've become accustomed to Dracula movies — but to tell it through the lens of his assistant, his familiar, somebody who's in a codependent relationship with him for 90 years. And to see Dracula as this metaphor for talking about toxic narcissism and a boss from hell — making a workplace movie — just seemed like a lot of fun."

It's so fun, in fact, there was a joke about it in Mel Brooks' 1995 comedy "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." In that film, Renfield (Peter MacNicol) found that his master had been slain, and wept for his death. Dr. Seward (Harvey Korman) explained to Renfield that, with Dracula dead, he was no longer trapped in a controlling, evil relationship. He is now his own man. Renfield briefly stands up, brushes back his hair, and enjoys a moment of freedom. When Seward called "Come, Renfield," he instantly becomes a ghoul again and growls "Yes, master." Rimshot. 

Monster Hoult

Hoult, of course, has no shortage of experience playing mutants and monsters. In several "X-Men" films, he played the Beast, a muscular, animal-like superhero with blue skin and a body covered with blue fur. In the 2013 film "Warm Bodies," Hoult played a lovelorn teenager, trying to win the affection of the girl of his dreams ... but he was also a flesh-eating zombie. In the TV series "The Great," he plays a human, but an unabashed, shallow hedonist, unafraid to look utterly horrendous. Hoult, despite being tall and unbearably handsome, tends to gravitate toward extreme character roles, and the stranger the better. 

McKay noticed Hoult's repeated daring, and wanted that go-for-broke commitment in "Renfield." Of his title actor, he said: 

"[B]eing able to cast Nicholas Hoult as Renfield, somebody I've been wanting to work with for a long time and the only person that, when I read this script, I saw as Renfield. Because Nic Hoult is unafraid to do things that are strange and weird and potentially unlikeable. He's fearless as far as that goes, and at the same time, he's incredibly vulnerable and charming. And audiences want to root for him. You need somebody like that and I don't think this movie could work without Nic Hoult and Nicolas Cage."

Oh yes, and Cage is clearly having a ball. The two Nics play very well off each other. "Renfield" is ultimately light and wispy and somewhat trifling, but its two lead actors are selling their monstrousness with aplomb and were clearly enthused to delve deep into their parts. It's kind of a hoot.