Despite recent debate, it is true that film criticism serves a variety of purposes beyond predicting how successful a movie will be. But if you just want to know whether you’ll actually like Renfield, there’s a pretty simple test.
Ask yourself: can you handle the “Full Cage?”
Answer that — whether you’re able to withstand a no-holds barred Nicolas Cage performance — and you don’t need to bother sticking around for any reviews of his new Dracula-inspired splatter comedy. Because when it comes to audience reception of Cage’s library, there are basically two types of people: those who can’t get enough of it, and those who can’t get out of the theatre fast enough.
Cage’s Count Dracula isn’t Renfield‘s lead, but the film still exhibits all the campy, manic energy you’d come to expect from the cinematic universe containing everything from Mom and Dad to Con Air and The Wicker Man. It’s an off-the-wall murder-fest with enough decapitations, Kool-Aid coloured blood and literal piles of corpses to threaten Hobo with a Shotgun. It’s a trope-heavy, extended “what-if” exercise that leans so heavily into genre stereotypes and formula it gives off the aura of an extended SNL sketch.
It’s silly, juvenile, full of overwrought performances, and — if you’re willing to go along for the ride — hilarious, self-aware and straight-up fun.
Because Renfield, for the most part, knows exactly what it is. Like this year’s M3GAN, or last year’s Jackass Forever, it equips itself with every critique that would normally be thrown at it, and makes them its own. So if you’re the type to stand up and cheer at Face/Off’s Hallelujah scene, then you get it. If not, then Renfield is probably not for you.
WATCH | Renfield trailer:
Servant in the spotlight
That’s not to say everything works perfectly — far from it.
Building off of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Renfield elevates the titular assistant from side character to main, while maintaining his status as Dracula’s servant and “familiar.” Much like the novel, Robert Montague Renfield (played here by Nicholas Hoult) is tasked with procuring victims, and performing all the daily duties a Prince of Darkness might need — while drawing his superhuman strength from regularly eating any insect that might cross his path.
From there, the similarities are mostly just the occasional tongue-in-cheek reference. Renfield and Dracula are transported from the original 19th century Trannsylvania setting to modern day New Orleans, and their relationship with one another is examined as exactly that — a relationship.
After an introduction directly lampooning Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, we catch up with Renfield among a support group for people in a relationship with a manipulative narcissist, and looking for a way out of it. And while the reluctant-bad guy Renfield is truly trying to get out from under Dracula’s heel, he’s also doing his best Dexter impression — bringing the same narcissistic manipulators the group complains of right to the Count as food, instead of the innocent “busload of cheerleaders” he requests.
What follows is a madcap, buddy-cop bloody adventure, as Renfield pairs up with disaffected detective Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) who just so happens to be bent on avenging her father’s death at the hands of a drug-dealing criminal syndicate.
In on the joke
It’s a messy sluice of competing narratives with an awkward, almost lazy, way of introducing background. Renfield lists his wants and fears through voice-over exposition that drops in whenever the plot needs a push. First Rebecca’s boss, then sister clunkily explain her motivations straight to her face — outlining a character backstory essentially lifted right out of Rush Hour 2. And mother/son criminal scions Bellafrancesca and Teddy Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ben Schwartz) go so arch with their unexplained villainy you half expect them to drop their many, many guns in order to perform their own Disney villain ballad.
But again, Renfield is not trying to satisfy the same rubric as Citizen Kane. Giving Renfield bug-powered, Jackie Chan-inspired martial arts skills is a joke in-and-of itself. Dracula sipping a martini glass full of blood (crowded with more eyeballs than would make sense even if they were olives) is fully aware of how ridiculous he looks. And by the time the third or fourth nameless goon’s head is literally kicked off his body and through a plate glass window, you should be picking up on what Renfield is going for.
Because its canned jokes and borderline millenial humour might feel like a 90-minute skit, but that’s the point. Renfield‘s immature comedy and deep-unless-you-think-about-it message of self acceptance works, because of how hard it leans in. Not to mention the fact that an overlong variety-show skit is also quite literally a description of Good Burger — and that was so good it’s getting a sequel.
Even still, the performances elevate Renfield beyond just a bloated improv scene: with awe-shucks charisma and mostly-funny line delivery, Hoult shows his potential as a leading man. At the same time, he cements a curiously Daniel Radcliffe-esque career arc — having graduated from mainstream childhood success (About a Boy) to some of the most bizarre role choices you could think of (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Great and — with a certain eerie similarity to Renfield — Warm Bodies.)
Elsewhere, Schwartz’s Lobo is hilariously, maniacally sociopathic in a way that echoes his early appearances in Jake and Amir. And Cage’s Captain Jack Sparrow-adjacent interpretation of Dracula would be any other actor giving eleven out of ten; for Cage though, it’s almost tastefully restrained — at least keeping in mind his earlier turn as a vampire in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss.
The only partial dud is Awkwafina: done no favours by her character’s almost unbelievably bland writing, Renfield stops being in on the joke when it focuses there. Instead of making fun of and exploiting overused sight gags and archetypes, Quincy’s contrived cop storyline just becomes genuinely — and tiresomely — unoriginal.
In the end though, it all comes together. And despite divided reviews and less than exciting box office predictions, Renfield will likely do what every Full Cage movie manages (or maybe, is cursed) to do: fail at the theatres, before being resurrected as a cult favourite.