Renfield (2023)

MARCH 30, 2023


As a big fan of Nicolas Cage, I was stoked to see him return to the multiplexes last year with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, but was mixed on the movie itself (as I tend to always be when people play exaggerated versions of themselves, i.e. Last Action Hero and the Jay + Bob Strike Back movies). And it wasn’t exactly a huge hit, so I feared it would be a one and done “return” and he’d be back in VOD stuff for a while, but here we are only a year later with a full on big budget studio movie. Renfield isn’t just Cage’s return to would-be blockbuster material (I don’t think Massive Talent was ever expected to be a smash; Renfield needs to hit nine digits at the box office just to break even), but it’s also his return to vampire territory, 35 years after one of his best films: 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss.

Of course, in that film he’s not an actual vampire, he just thinks he’s one (amusingly, the day I saw Renfield in New Orleans via the Overlook Festival, my copy of the new 4K UHD of the similar Martin arrived at home). No such ambiguity here: he’s not just a vampire, he’s THE vampire – Dracula himself. The movie curiously posits itself as a sequel to the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi film, inserting Cage and Nicholas Hoult (as the title character) into classic moments from that film in order to bring us up to speed – we even get Cage delivering the “I never drink… wine” line! If you think about it too much it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (and changes the ending), but it’s fine – it’s just a quick way to establish early on that this is a “what happens next” kind of story, not a modern retelling of the usual tale (albeit from Renfield’s perspective) or whatever, with the added bonus of seeing Cage do a surprisingly solid Lugosi impression.

Anyway, as you can expect from the title the main focus is on Renfield, who is also seemingly immortal thanks to occasionally drinking Dracula’s blood (which can also heal wounds simply from being poured over them). So it’s now the modern day (in New Orleans; not sure what prompts them to move there but it’s a fun location all the same) and he’s quite lonely, having obviously lost his family long ago and living an empty life devoted to nothing but doing his master’s bidding. In order to find fresh victims he joins an AA type group for people who are in/trying to escape from toxic relationships, using the information his fellow members divulge to track down terrible people for his boss to feed on (so like, when one girl talks about her abusive boyfriend, he finds the guy and brings him to Dracula – a fine way to keep Renfield sympathetic!). But after experiencing an epiphany and realizing he himself is in a toxic relationship, he decides to use what he’s learned and try to escape from Dracula’s shadow – something his boss is unsurprisingly not too happy about.

This alone probably could have generated a pretty good movie – not to mention given Cage more screentime – but part of Renfield’s journey is inspired by a chance meeting with a cop played by Awkwafina. She too is fed up with her bosses, who stick her on DUI checkpoint duty (“in a town with drive-thru daiquiris!”) when she really wants to take down the local mob that killed her father (also a cop), which should inform anyone that’s ever seen a movie before that the cops are under the mob’s thumb and her poking her nose in their business is going to get her killed by one of her own fellow officers. While she makes a few appearances in the trailer I was surprised how much of the movie focused on her and the mob story (the latter of which not hinted at in the trailer at all; Ben Schwarz as the Sonny Corleone-esque hothead under the mob boss/his mom, played by Shoreh Aghdashloo*, also has more screentime than Cage), to the extent that it’s basically a two-hander instead of relegating her to “the love interest”. Which is fine in theory; I just feel she’s not a particularly engaging actress who plays the same character in everything, so not only is she not believable as a cop but it’s also asking a lot of the audience who was sold on, you know, Nic Cage as Dracula.

And he’s great! He doesn’t do the “mega-acting” thing all that much (if anything he’s subtle compared to the likes of Gary Oldman in his uncle Francis' movie) and while the movie is basically a comedy it’s very rarely on account of anything he’s doing or saying. He’s a legit menacing presence, with some fantastic makeup in his early scenes as he is left nearly dead from the opening encounter and has to be nourished back to health. In his first big modern day scene he comes off more like The Hunchback (or, to go outside of the Universal Monster canon, Paul McCrane in Robocop right before he meets the business end of Kurtwood Smith’s car), and then each subsequent appearance has him more “intact” until he’s back to his seductive glory – with the actor clearly relishing the process and having different shades to play; going from kind of pathetic/angry to suave and fully in control. So if you’re the type of person who judges the actor’s performances on how many memes it will inspire, you might be disappointed, but if you’re like me and just find him a genuinely talented and interesting actor who commits to whatever role comes his way, you’ll hopefully share my opinion that this is, even if somewhat by default due to his mostly generic VOD stuff, one of his best on-screen performances in nearly 20 years (along with Pig, Joe, and Mandy – I guess single word titles are a good luck charm?). Even the sadly limited screentime (30 minutes would be an optimistic guess?) is ultimately kind of a good thing – he makes his scenes count, and after all this time “away” (he’s never stopped working, it’s just… look, even I haven’t heard of half the stuff on his recent filmography, and I love the guy) as someone rooting for a comeback I love that people will walk out saying “I wish Nic Cage was in it more!”

That’s nothing against Hoult or the other cast, I should stress. Schwarz is pretty funny as the other antagonist, and Brandon Scott James (John from The Good Place) steals just about every scene he’s in as the leader of the self-help meeting group. I mean, I should be clear if you haven’t figured it out from the trailers: this is a horror comedy that is more concerned with the latter part of that equation, and Hoult’s depressed state means he doesn’t get too many laughs himself, so the supporting cast is what keeps the energy high. It’s a pretty short movie (93 minutes) and clearly had some slicing – the credits tout all of the dancers used in a scene that didn’t make the cut (though a few frames are shown in the accompanying stylized animated credits) – but I think it works in the movie’s favor. It’s just plain FUN, racing along through the somewhat generic mob story but engaging us with Renfield’s plight and Dracula’s increasing menace over everyone. You’re never more than a few minutes from another big laugh and/or gory action scene, and that’s fine with me – escapism is a good thing.

Back to the gore, I was at times surprised at how splattery it got. A little too digital at times for my tastes, but I can forgive it when it’s not supposed to be taken seriously anyway. This is no “Rated R because they didn’t feel like trimming out 12 frames to make it PG-13” type movie – there is a shocking amount of dismemberment going on, and most of it comes from our hero. When he eats bugs he gets super strength, and uses it to literally kick villains (mob guys or dirty cops) apart when it’s time for another action scene. And Cage gets in on the action too, decimating a room full of people with his claws and fangs – the R is earned several times over, which is much appreciated for a relatively big budget ($65m!) studio film that, while not technically an original since it’s still a Dracula movie, isn’t exactly a can’t-miss “franchise” movie either like Scream. Let’s put it this way: in order to be counted as a theatrical hit, this will have to be the highest grossing Dracula movie ever (not counting the animated Hotel Transylvania series), so it’s a risky but admirable move from Universal to sink that much into it at all, let alone focus the ad campaign around an actor who hasn’t toplined a major hit in 14 years (Knowing). During the peak of Covid times, there was some talk about how when theaters came back it’d only be surefire safe movies (i.e. Marvel stuff and Blumhouse type horror), with almost nothing aimed specifically at adults, but Universal is consistently shrugging off such worries with offbeat R rated fare – they just had Cocaine Bear (a surprise smash) and later this year they’ll have a talking dog movie that also sports an R rating. Good for them!

Anyway, it won’t be for everyone, especially if the humor turns you off or you’re some kind of purist that can’t get past the idea of this being a sequel to Browning’s film (I guess they also hate Abbott and Costello’s adventure?). And as I said, if you’re like me and find Awkwafina kind of grating, you have to deal with her having as much screentime as its title character, though thankfully she’s not too bad (if, again, not believable) and scores a few good lines (poor Officer Kyle) to balance things out. Hoult and Cage do terrific work and the movie rarely slows down long enough to start questioning things, and I think that’s exactly what makes it a winner. That it also has something to say about dealing with narcissistic personalities and how you can escape from them is just icing on the cake; a message that enhances the goofy fun of the rest of the movie instead of dwelling on it and bumming people out. And unlike the last big Dracula movie (2014’s Dracula Untold) it’s not concerned with setting up a stupid cinematic universe, so that’s another check in the “pro” column.

What say you?


1 comment:

  1. Saw Renfield this evening & had a blast! The LA crowd was into it & there were a few "Cage moments" that, while not peak wtf Cage, got some appreciation all around. Hope more folks check it out!


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