Dracula’s first introduction in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel predates the founding of Universal Studios (then Universal Pictures) by a mere 15 years, but Universal possibly wouldn’t still be around if it wasn’t for the vampire. Financially struggling at the start of the 1930s, Universal’s new head Carl Laemmle Jr. (recently bestowed that title by his father, the studio’s co-found Laemmle Sr.) carved out a niche for the studio with a pair of chilling adaptations of horror novels released in 1931: Dracula and Frankenstein. Any doubts as to whether or not audiences would gravitate to scary stories devoid of any levity were quickly relieved; both films were box office smashes, Dracula becoming Universal’s biggest hit of the year and helping save the studio from bankruptcy. Not only was Universal’s legacy preserved, but a new one was created for Dracula, Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of whom has become integral to the iconography of the character, from his costume to his icy yet dignified manner of moving and speaking.
It’s Lugosi’s Dracula, at least in appearance, that can be most closely linked to Nicolas Cage’s interpretation of the character in Universal’s latest addition to their ongoing horror lexicon: Renfield, a comedic take on the story that is told from the point of view of Dracula’s long-suffering familiar (played by Dwight Frye in the 1931 film, and by Nicholas Hoult here). In fact, the film (whose screenplay Ryan Ridley is drawn from a story by The Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman) immediately draws a direct link between the two, with Cage and Hoult delightfully recreating scenes from the black-and-white 1931 Tod Browning movie as a way to catch audiences up to speed on how the pair got together. It was on a visit to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle at the start of the 20th century that lawyer R.M. Renfield, hoping to broker a deal for some land, ended up becoming turned by the vampire. Granted superhuman strength and agelessness that grows stronger when he consumes bugs, Renfield toils away for Dracula over the years, securing him bodies for food and doing his every bidding.
That nod to Universal’s—and Dracula’s—history is one of the strengths in a film that has few of them. Renfield is, as I mentioned, a comedy (its director Chris McKay’s previous credits include The LEGO Batman Movie and the Robot Chicken series), but it’s only mildly funny as it attempts to draw situational humor from plucking the very pale and meek Renfield out from under Dracula’s fangs and tossing him into a self-help group that tries to help him uses contemporary psychology techniques for people in toxic co-dependent relationships (however, I did personally appreciate the film’s shout-out to Tumblr). While Dracula, on the mend after an attack by some vampire hunters nearly kills him, is temporarily out of the picture, Renfield gets to thrive on his own, inspired both by the members of his therapy group and by New Orleans cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who doesn’t back down from taking on the mob who murdered her father, even as her colleagues couldn’t be more apathetic.
When it isn’t attempting to be funny, Renfield delivers on the blood and gore in spades, with action scenes in which Renfield pulls apart his victims’ bodies like string cheese culminating in literal fountains of red goo. But the over-the-top violence fails to mask how poorly staged those scenes are; in fact, over-editing frequently obscures the characters’ movements in frustrating ways. And the story, which turns into Renfield and Rebecca taking on the mafia while Dracula himself takes a backseat, isn’t compelling enough to back those scenes up. Renfield—like so many gothic tales—is also set in and filmed on location in New Orleans, but it fails to make use of that exciting backdrop. This story could have happened anywhere; it utterly lacks a sense of place.
But the cast, which also includes the likes of Ben Schwartz as bumbling mob enforcer Teddy, is largely game (Awkwafina, unfortunately, usually feels out of place). Hoult is appropriately twitchy, and Cage builds on his established reputation for playing gonzo characters to create a version of Dracula that feels both like Dracula, and like him. His role in this film is decidedly a supporting one, but every time he’s on screen, the quality of the film perceptibly rises thanks to his presence. He does so much without speaking, using every muscle in his face to convey Dracula’s attitude. Renfield may be a comedy, and Cage is one of the few funny bits in it, but watching him, it’s easy to envision another Dracula movie in which Cage plays it straight and is absolutely terrifying. When he and Hoult appear together, it’s energizing to watch two actors who have made a name for themselves by playing weirdos go at it. Otherwise, Renfield is a lackluster footnote in Universal’s horror history.
Renfield is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 93 minutes. Rated R.