Renfield: camp horror comedy suffers from co-dependency on too much CGI splatter violence

Chris McKay, “Renfield” (2023)

A cheerfully cheesy vehicle for Nicolas Cage to finally fulfil his life’s ambition to play Count Dracula, “Renfield” shifts the focus away from the vampire himself onto one R M Renfield who, ninety years ago, sold Dracula some real estate in London and ended up becoming the fiend’s devoted servant who subsists on a diet of insects and other bugs. Now in early 21st-century Los Angeles, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is tiring of Dracula’s narcissistic personality and tyrannical and manipulative behaviours, and signs up to a self-help group at a church where, among other things, he not only can learn how to wean himself away from Dracula but also find out where the other group members’ abusive partners live so he can kill them and take them to Dracula to feast on. Renfield later follows one such abusive fellow to a warehouse and confronts the man’s criminal partners before they are attacked by a hitman hired by a criminal family known as the Lobos. Renfield kills the hitman and goes after the hitman’s employer, one Teddy Lobos (Ben Schwartz) but the crook escapes him and races off in his car, only to run into a police checkpoint where he confronts police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). Renfield and Quincy themselves meet not long afterwards at a restaurant where Renfield is hunting down some pure-hearted victims to sate his boss’s appetite and Quincy is looking for Lobos’s accomplices in the underground cocaine trade. The Lobos gang attacks Quincy at the restaurant and Quincy with Renfield’s help – he gets superhuman strength and speed from the bugs he eats – successfully fends off the crooks, albeit with a lot of broken bodies and amputated limbs and blood splattered everywhere.

From then on, Renfield and Quincy strike up a friendship of sorts during Quincy’s investigation of various disappearances and murders that eventually lead her to Renfield and Renfield having to tell her the truth about himself and Dracula. At the same time, Renfield – impressed by Quincy’s bravery and loyalty to the memory of her late police officer father, himself gunned down by the Lobos gang – resolves to leave Dracula and make a life for himself following the self-help advice from his support group friends. Unfortunately, Dracula turns up and slaughters the entire group in front of Renfield. The Lobos gang (with the collusion of corrupt police officers) is also coming after Renfield as well as Quincy, forcing the two to take shelter in Renfield’s new apartment and then to arm themselves with bucketloads of insects, weapons and various vampire-repellent remedies to race to the Lobos headquarters when they discover that Quincy’s sister Kate (Camille Chen), an FBI agent, has been taken captive by the Lobos and their police collaborators.

Hoult acquits himself very well playing the much-beleaguered Renfield who, in the process of weaning himself away from Dracula’s baleful influence, discovers that he can do good and be a hero at the same time. At times the positive self-help group therapy scenes come across as satire, especially when Dracula barges in on the group’s meeting in typically flamboyant fashion. In every scene he appears in as Dracula, Cage has great difficulty not chewing the scenery and holding everyone’s attention even without his vampire fangs; he obviously relishes every moment he has playing the character he was born to play. Awkwafina does well as the tough-talking Quincy and she and Hoult work well together. An unexpected delight is Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bellafrancesca, the sinister leader of the Lobos criminal gang network. Other actors playing minor cast members make quite a good impression, more than what might be expected given their minimal screen time.

The action is very fast, and the plot is packed with Renfield’s journey of self-discovery, Quincy coming to terms with her father’s death and eventual reconciliation with her sister, and the ultimate showdowns between Renfield and Dracula, and between Quincy and the Lobos gang. Happily for viewers overcome by the excessively cartoonish CGI violence and gore, the script-writers thoughtfully bring Dracula and the Lobos crooks together in collusion so that there’s only one real showdown. The issues brought up earlier in the film that Renfield and Quincy have to face are resolved satisfactorily and (spoiler alert) Renfield even finds a way to bring his support group friends back to life – though they are much changed from their brief experiences in the afterlife.

Cage’s special brand of camp craziness as Dracula is the film’s major draw-card – if anything, he doesn’t get enough screen time even though he gets plenty. Apart from Cage and Hoult’s performances, the film starts out well with the satirical co-dependency / self-help plot but quickly devolves into action splatter comedy horror silliness and never quite recovers. That’s one co-dependency relationship Hollywood needs to address …