Nic Hoult and Nic Cage serve up a bloody, breezy action romp.
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Sometimes all you need is a goofy, lighthearted romp that gets you in and out in under 90 minutes and never bores you. In this regard, Renfield is here to serve.
An action-comedy dressed in horror-lite garb, Renfield tells the story of, well, Renfield, Dracula’s longtime servant and harvester of bodies. Nicholas Hoult brings Renfield to life opposite a perfectly dialed-in Nicolas Cage as Dracula.
Having endured decades of servitude, Renfield has grown tired of killing and collecting innocents for his master to feed on, and he’s tired of living in the grimy underbelly of one city after another, as the pair continuously move to stay hidden from monster hunters and the church. Moreover, he’s tired of living under someone else’s thumb.
After spending time at a support group for codependents in abusive relationships—he’s not there seeking help, he’s there to collect—Renfield begins to realize that he is among his own kind, and that it’s long past time for a change. The problem is that fleeing and protecting one’s self from an abuser is much harder when they’re an immortal lord of death.
One upside to this toxic relationship: Renfield gets superpowers, borrowed from Dracula himself, by eating bugs. That makes him incredibly effective at brutally murdering dangerous criminals, a pastime he attempts to intermingle with collecting bodies for his master. Dracula’s not a fan; innocent people give better blood.
Renfield’s vigilantism catches the notice of police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who’s been trying to bust up the Lobo crime family for years. When her pursuits put her in the Lobo’s crosshairs, Renfield munches a spider and leaps into action to stop them. The incident sparks a mutual respect between the odd pair, and Renfield’s fascination with Rebecca’s heroism and idealism begins to distract him from his Dracula duties.
Renfield is simple, lean, and goes pretty much nowhere that you don’t expect it to after the first fifteen minutes. This thing is so fat-free that, despite not being the least bit inventive, it’s constantly progressing and never boring.
The strangest decision the movie makes is to be an action film; this would have been perfectly serviceable as a horror-comedy with maybe an odd set piece or two. But whenever our hero eats a bug to kill some thugs, Renfield almost becomes a different movie. As my friend and fellow critic Mitch Ringenberg said as we were leaving the screening, “We live in a post-John Wick world,” — sometimes that means movies that don’t need highly-choreographed hyperviolence have it anyway.
Granted, there are some fun bits in these sequences, but those tend to be the moments of slapstick physical comedy rather than anything particularly awe-inspiring in terms of action design. The editing frequently obscures the otherwise interesting choreography, and it’s all muddled by some of the worst digital blood in a major release that I’ve seen… maybe ever?
The real fun comes from the film’s sleazy sense of humor and its cast. Warm Bodies fans are in for a treat; Hoult’s return to “pale husk seeking soul” gives Renfield a dry, awkward charm that makes him a compelling protagonist even with a barebones script. It’s hard not to enjoy his goofy grins and winks at Rebecca as he’s slamming a severed arm lengthwise through a dirty cop’s chest cavity. Opposite Hoult, Cage is a joyous amalgam of classic renditions of Dracula, like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. His obvious glee at playing the role so big and broad elevates every scene he’s in. He’s hilarious, yes, but in tiny moments, also kind of terrifying.
Renfield is a breezy, bloody Sunday matinee movie. Alternatively, it would make for a pleasant surprise after a long doom-scroll through your myriad streaming services here in a few months. It’s not doing anything especially gutsy with its takes on Dracula, action, or even comedy, but it does just enough right to make it a fun watch, and it knows when to call it a day.
Come for Undead Hoult, stay for Vampire Cage, and when Movie Night is said and done—hey! it might still be light outside.