Director – Chris McKay, Screenplay – Ryan Ridley, Story – Robert Kirkman, Producers – David Alpert. Bryan Furst, Sean Furst, Robert Kirkman, Chris McKay & Samantha Nisenboim, Photography – Mitchell Amundsen, Music – Marco Beltrami, Visual Effects Supervisor – James E. Price, Visual Effects – Crafty Apes (Supervisor – Andy Byrne), Industrial Light & Magic (Supervisor – Anthony Smith) & Outpost VFX (Supervisor – Sheen Yap), Special Effects Supervisor – Matt Kutcher, Makeup Effects – Tinsley Studio, Production Design – Alec Hammond. Production Company – Skybound/Giant Wildcat Prodictions.
Nicholas Hoult (Robert Montgomery Renfield), Nicolas Cage (Dracula), Awkwafina (Rebecca Quincy), Benjamin Schwartz (Tedward Lobo), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Bellfrancesca Lobo), Brandon Scott Jones (Mark), Adrian Martinez (Chris), Camille Chen (Kate Quincy), Bess Rous (Cailtlyn), Jenna Kanell (Carol), Danya Labelle (Karla), James Moses Black (Captain Browning)
Robert Renfield has been Dracula’s vassal for many decades. Following an attack by vampire hunters, Dracula and Renfield have been forced to relocate to an abandoned building in New Orleans. There Renfield brings bodies for Dracula to feast on so that he can recuperate. Because Renfield has consumed Dracula’s blood, this allows him to gain superhuman powers and fighting abilities whenever he eats insects. Renfield attends a support group to deal with his codependent relationship with Dracula. Renfield goes out hunting drug dealers. While fleeing from Renfield, gang member Tedward Lobo crashes and is arrested by beat cop Rebecca Quincy who has an obsession with busting the Lobo gang. She and Renfield are brought together as Renfield takes a stance against Dracula and Dracula decides to join forces with the Lobo crime family.
Renfield joins a new fad that has sprouted up among vampire films in the 2020s – the idea of taking minor characters or elements from the background of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and building an entire film around them. 2021 first gave us the low-budget Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing (2021) – a retelling of Dracula minus Dracula, although there had been several Van Helsing as hero films before that. 2022 brought House of Darkness (2022) and The Invitation (2022), both based around the characters of Dracula’s Brides. Still ahead for 2023 is The Last Voyage of the Demeter (2023) based around the doomed ship aboard which Dracula travels to England.
Sometimes, you can tell a film is going to suck from the assigned director to it. In this case I had bad feelings about Renfield from about the point I read of Chris McKay’s name attached. Chris McKay had emerged from tv animation, most notedly as a director and producer on Robot Chicken (2005- ). McKay made his feature-length directorial debut with The Lego Batman Movie (2017). He broached live-action with the loud and moronic time travel action film The Tomorrow War (2021), and at the same time as this also wrote the story for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023). Renfield also comes with a story from Robert Kirkman, co-creator of the original comic that became the basis of tv’s The Walking Dead (2010-22).
Universal’s original Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi was one of the defining works of vampire cinema, although beyond a string of Dracula sequels in the 1930s and 40s, Universal’s hold on Dracula has dissipated. Universal belatedly tried to reboot their Dracula into a shared universe with Dracula Untold (2014) but that failed on the launchpad. To recover from the setback, Universal’s decision was to make Renfield and opt for a horror comedy playing.
It is important when considering Renfield to take a look at what Renfield was in the original Bram Stoker novel. Renfield, who is never given any first name, was a lunatic in the Seward asylum with a penchant for eating insects and birds. Renfield is a devotee of Dracula, who lives in the hope that Dracula will turn him into one of his kind, where his eating of insects is seen as a small-scale version of Dracula’s predation on humans. There have been a number of memorable portrayals of Renfield on the screen – from Dwight Frye in the 1931 Dracula to Tom Waits in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), while one would even happily nominate Arte Johnson in the comedic Love at First Bite (1979). There has been the tendency ever since the 1931 film to expand Renfield’s role beyond being a mere lunatic incarcerated in an asylum to actually becoming Dracula’s manservant.
When it comes to Renfield the film, the whirring noise you hear may be Bram Stoker rotating in his grave at high-speed. We are first introduced to Renfield as a member of a support group for people in codependent relationships. A few minutes later, we learn that all the eating bugs has a purpose. In fact, bugs for Renfield are like what spinach is for Popeye and serves to give him an instant infusion of vampiric superpowers whereupon we see him turn into a bad-ass action hero, engaged in all manner of Hong Kong-styled acrobatic leaps and twirls while gorily ripping people’s arms off and splattering them. To the film’s credit, it does an exacting restaging of several scenes from the 1931 film, right down to the use of Swan Lake on the soundtrack. However, this also serves to only emphasise how much at completely opposite remove the two characterisations of Renfield are.
Nicolas Cage plays Dracula. It should be noted Cage previously played a vampire, or at least a man who believed he was a vampire, in Vampire’s Kiss (1988), which was one of Cage’s most bizarre performances in a career based on bizarre performances. In a film that feels like it is based around Cage going nuts in another of his crazy man roles, the surprise is that he is relatively restrained here, far more so than he was in Vampire’s Kiss. The rest of the casting often feels completely random, more a case of filling a part with whatever actor was available than anyone suited to the role – Shohreh Aghdashloo as a mob boss, Awkwafina as a beat cop.
Expectedly, Chris McKay’s direction heads for the completely ridiculous. Universal may have gotten a less serious vampire film – indeed, what they have is one that takes nothing that happens seriously. It is not that such an approach cannot work – tv’s What We Do in the Shadows (2019- ) has managed to remain a consistently hilarious for its four seasons on air so far, but this befalls loud and clumsy hands that make nothing funny out of the material. The height of absurdity is a scene that takes place in the well of an apartment block with Nicholas Hoult tearing apart and splattering bodies. With its mediocre box-office, Renfield also seems to have killed interest in a big-budget vampire revival dead in the water, although ne still holds out the hope that The Last Voyage of the Demeter can turn this around.