Directed by Chris McKay | Written by Ryan Ridley, Robert Kirkman, and Ava Tramer | 93 min | ▲▲△△△ | Crave
Like Cocaine Bear, this was one of those high-concept comedies that came out in the spring and I missed in cinemas, expecting to catch up with it on another platform. Sure enough, it’s now available in Canada on Crave. I don’t think watching Renfield at home has improved the experience.
This is a comedy vampire picture told from the perspective of Dracula’s long-suffering familiar, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), who in the present day has taken to attending support groups in order to find the courage to leave this unhealthy codependent relationship that’s been going on for an unnaturally long time. It’s a decent gag, though it feels like it was born out of a skit on Saturday Night Live, and unfortunately, so does much of the film — paper-thin characters going through the motions of an undercooked script, which is especially disappointing coming at least partly from Robert Kirkman of Walking Dead and Invincible fame.
The picture starts promisingly enough with an homage to the Bela Lugosi Dracula, a very game Nicolas Cage here as the legendary bloodsucker. Renfield’s been finding people for his master to eat for decades, and now they’ve repaired to New Orleans to give Dracula a chance to recuperate from the last time they crossed paths with vampire hunters bent on their extermination.
This is where Renfield is getting the emotional support and trying to turn his life around. He crosses paths with Rebecca (Awkwafina), a cop trying to make peace with the death of her cop dad and the resentment of her sister, Kate (Camille Chen), who works for the FBI. Giving them trouble is the local crime family, the Lobos, including drug dealer son Ted (Ben Schwartz) and matriarch, Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
The problem here is you don’t care about any one of them — not Renfield and his low self-esteem, not Rebecca and her need to yell at everyone, and certainly not the monstrous, cartoony Dracula. Renfield’s character arc has something to do with his finding redemption for all his terrible acts and maybe even becoming a hero, but I may have drifted a little during the scenes where someone wasn’t being disemboweled. It’s dull and not nearly as quirky or subversive as it should be.
Best I can tell there are two reasons to watch this at all, for which earned it my two triangle rating — one for each.
The first is Cage, who commits to his Dracula as he does everything. The accent is ridiculous, the teeth outrageous, but he’s going for it — his scenes torturing Hoult have some bite. I would still watch Vampire’s Kiss any day of the week before this one — in that 1988 picture Cage eats a live cockroach on screen. Hoult’s bug-eating here is certainly only CGI.
The second thing that makes Renfield worth a look at all is the production design. This is a flashy, impressively neon-lit movie — from the gangster’s muscle cars all tricked out with with underglow to Dracula’s smoke-effects to the twisted monster make-up, the eye-candy fitfully impresses.
Unfortunately, even in that, much of the gore is obviously and digitally painted, which will disappoint those who, like me, prefer their movie blood as corn syrup and red food colouring.