Renfield is a horror-comedy that makes a controversial call to mix two types of horror. It wants to embrace the allure of vampire lore and the poignant nature of toxic relationships. It is whipped up with over-the-top violence and surprising earnestness in a quest that goes beyond killing Dracula. While not a perfect horror cocktail, it’s a surprisingly refreshing dose of horror that touches the heart as much as it rips the organ out of chests.
It’s perfect casting for a movie like this to have Nicolas Cage in the role of Dracula. He has an uncanny ability to play a ruthlessly determined yet ridiculously framed character. For a film such as this, it needs a Dracula that is equal parts terrifying and silly. It helps sell the premise of his henchman Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) being conflicted about their dynamic. Having felt something missing for the longest time, Renfield tries to find some confidence and better stand up against his dark master.
Hoult’s portrayal of Renfield features a character who has embraced his weirdness but strives to improve. This leads to many scenes distinguishing between laughing at his antics and feeling for the poor guy. Scenes of attending group therapy for other abused individuals become amusing moments of reflection, where the group doesn’t understand that Renfield’s partner has literal power over him. Brandon Scott Jones plays the group leader who seems almost intentionally misreading Renfield’s words but is still devoted to ensuring his happiness.
Renfield’s plight meshes into a plot involving Dracula teaming up with a mafia paying off the police. The corrupt city makes the bold and devoted cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) a perfect ally for Renfield. She knows what it feels like to be devalued by those she serves. Her loud mouth makes her ideal for giving Renfield a boost of confidence. And he’ll need a lot of it, considering Renfield already has the power to rip off limbs and punch people off the ground with his bug diet.
This film proceeds briskly and has a certain lightness to its premise. The city-ruling gangsters are run by such sinister forces as the mob boss Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her enforcer son Teddy (Ben Schwartz), so proud to be evil they even announce their stance. They devour their roles in a film where they more or less become villains for Dracula to team up with and Renfield to slaughter. Or Dracula to slaughter if he feels like it.
The uproarious violence becomes a giddy delight for how far it goes with the gore and bloodshed. Much like the topic of self-empowerment, there’s shock and awe for many sequences with missing limbs and heavy body counts. This ranges from the horrifying sequence of Dracula draining blood from Renfield’s friends to the hilarious absurdity of Renfield impaling enforcers with their limbs. So much creativity went into these outlandish moments of action and gore, even going the martial arts routes with the iconic x-ray shot showcasing bones breaking. Watching human innards explode out two orifices at once is so gross I couldn’t help but love the vigor.
With its premise and brilliant casting, Renfield is ridiculous enough to have a lot of fun with its tale of relationships, vampires, the mafia, and gallons of blood. There’s perhaps a deeper story to explore in how Renfield gets over his low self-esteem, which is mildly hampered by the film’s need for a laugh or a kill every other scene. But for what the film tries to accomplish in its short running time, it ends up being a lot of fun. How could one not adore Nicolas Cage for having too much fun as Dracula, even when he spends most of the first act looking like a melting monster? This is a movie that knows how to use him and knows how to bring out laughs amid a relatable character’s tragic flaws. It’s also just funny watching Renfield turn a vampire into concrete ice cubes.