Serving a delicious platter of wacky comedy, zesty action, and a hammy Nicolas Cage performance, Chris McKay’s Renfield earns a spot on the list of the year’s best comedies. While the laughs do wane as the film goes on, it’s hard to dismiss how much of a bloody good time it is. McKay and writers Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman craft a modern reimagining of Bram Stoker’s classic work by shifting its lens away from Dracula and to his servant, Renfield. This in turn brings affecting awareness to the signs and dangers of codependency.
Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is tired of serving the Prince of Darkness. “You will get me exactly what I want,” his master Dracula (Cage) tells him. Without thinking twice, Renfield has done just that for the past century. He’s been cursed; sucked into a toxic relationship with a selfish, narcissistic, and ungrateful partner. Despite the constant abuse and vitriol that Dracula spews, Renfield has been unable, and even afraid, to leave his side. He cleans up his master’s horrific messes, brings him corpses to feast on, and in exchange he gets some of Dracula’s power and invulnerability by eating bugs. An appealing compromise if you can get passed the diet, but the once fanatically devoted familiar now finds himself in group therapy, surrounded by other people who understand the soul-sucking nature of codependency. Listening to others in his position, Renfield realizes that he’s never considered his own wants and needs. Both have the same answer: Freedom.
Many will relate to Renfield’s plight, sans a blood-sucking vampire. The script captures how victims of abuse ultimately lose themselves in trying to please someone else. Renfield no longer knows who he is. He’s given all his power to Dracula. But now, he wants to take it back. That’s easier said than done, however. The meek Renfield, even with his power boost, would never be able to defeat such an adversary, and he knows that. However, he finds the inspiration to try anyway when he meets Rebecca (Awkwafina doing the same old thing). Like Renfield, the audience spends quite a bit of time with her character, getting to know her story. It turns out, they have similarities. They are both shrouded by another’s shadow and trying to move past it to figure out who they are and their place in the world. As the daughter of an exemplary police officer, traffic cop Rebecca wants to make a name for herself on the force. You can see the pressure on her shoulders and how her fellow officers don’t take her seriously. What inspires Renfield is how, despite it all, Rebecca is unafraid to stand up for herself, especially to the weaselly local gang leader, Teddy (Ben Schwartz). After a run-in with Teddy’s gang, resulting in dozens of crushed skulls and Renfield saving Rebecca’s life, the pair decide to work together in an entertaining buddy cop pairing to defeat the monsters that have ruined their lives.
Renfield expands strikingly on a story we already know. Fans of Tod Browning’s 1931 film will be served with recreated scenes, faithfully in black and white, with Cage and Hoult standing in for Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. Ridley and Kirkman’s script plays an ode to Bram Stoker’s novel and previous adaptations, while also providing the audience with a new take on the characters. We learn of Renfield’s life before Dracula, and while he still eats insects to gain power from their life force, we arrive at the point in his journey where his own life force is drained. The lunatic of previous portrayals is long gone. While we see the character’s transformation through Hoult’s emotive and descriptive performance, it can also be observed in the costume and production design. Renfield is introduced with an unkempt, dated appearance, living in Gothic-styled decay. As he takes big leaps forward to move away from servitude, not only does his wardrobe and the production design get more cheerful, but so does his disposition.
Cage was made to play Dracula. It’s one of those performances that’s so satisfying to watch because of how much fun you know the actor was having. Snickering like a devilish prankster, Cage sinks his sharp fangs into a role that’s the perfect combination of the different portrayals of the character. This combination has heavily to do with makeup work and costume design. Thanks to some perfectly repugnant prosthetics and a monstrous grimace, Cage taps into Stoker’s unattractive and bestial Dracula. He also carries himself like the suave aristocrat that playwright Hamilton Deane envisions the character to be in his 1924 stage adaptation, high-collared cape and all.
At first, Renfield feels like one of those random movies that came out of left field. But despite a premise that may seem bizarre to some, the audience will find much amusement in its peculiarity and perhaps be surprised at how it becomes an effective story of self-discovery and of finding the strength to move on.