The Little Guy Bites Back in 'Renfield' (2023)/Directed by Chris McKay/Grade: B+
Dracula torments his hapless underling. Source: Universal Pictures
Renfield (2023), for me, was not a movie I remotely anticipated. When I first saw the trailer, my immediate thought was, "Yeah, I can wait till this is available on streaming." After my best friend gave it a rather fervent recommendation, though, and it became free with an Amazon Prime subscription, I decided to give it a chance. Would it blow away my expectations, or prove to be just as underwhelming and bland as it looked?
What's the Premise?
This story centers around the miserable Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), lifelong servant of Dracula (Nicolas Cage, perfectly in his over-the-top element), as he dutifully finds the iconic count fresh meat. Their global list of locations to find prey has started to dwindle, though, as authorities always catch on to Dracula's wrongdoings and set out to apprehend him. Now based in New Orleans, Renfield has lately decided to attend a local support group for people who have been in relationships with narcissistic abusers. The rationale here, you see, is that Renfield, who's developed a conscience, will track down the people who hurt the individual members and then kill them instead of murdering innocents. Soon, Renfield's experience there leads him to realize how truly toxic and codependent his relationship with his boss truly is, and he begins a journey to become his own person.
But that's not all that's going on. After taking down the horrid ex of one of his fellow support group members, Renfield accidentally finds himself entangled with a ruthless drug lord named Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Tedward (Ben Schwartz), who are being investigated by a persistent, plucky cop named Rebecca (Awkafina). She also becomes Renfield's friend after he saves her during a bust-gone-wrong.
So What Works About It?
Dracula's servant looks for a way out of this business deal. Source: Universal Pictures
Renfield works best when it's focused on Renfield's journey from passive victim to active hero. Nicholas Hoult is so perfectly convincing as the character, particularly because he doesn't wink at the camera like he knows it's a joke. He plays it straight, as does everyone else. Even when someone does crack wise, it never undercuts the dramatic heft of the themes about narcissistic abuse. This delicate tonal balance owes credit to a few key factors: the editing by Ryan Folsey, Zene Baker and Giancarlo Ganziano, as well as Ryan Ridley's script and Chris McKay's direction. The pacing and rhythm of the cuts hits the comedic beats of each conversation with great agility, while also allowing for the dramatic moments to play out so you really feel the intended emotions. I found myself instantly rooting for Renfield throughout, hopeful he would successfully break away from Dracula.
Hoult's platonic chemistry with Awkwafina is also totally believable. With Rebecca being an honest cop in an otherwise corrupt force, she understands Renfield's struggle to receive credit for something decent in this hard world. These two characters' scenes together are so charming, that I can't wait for a sequel, just to see more of their friendship.
I was also wonderfully surprised by the action sequences in this picture. The choreography, editing, stunt work, and gory special effects constantly keep the energy and creativity running high. This is bolstered by Renfield's ability to fly and jump long distances, lending to some rather memorable kills. If you're a gore-hound like I am, you'll find plenty of satisfaction here.
What Doesn't Work About It?
Aside from the blood and gore, most of the visual effects in Renfield don't look like they actually exist in the frame. For a reported $65 million budget, I wonder how much of that went to the effects department. I'm sure the artists worked their butts off, but I didn't see that money on the screen.
The world's most famous vampire struts his stuff. Source: Universal Pictures
I also couldn't have cared less about the subplot involving the Lobo mob family.The whole thing feels like it could've been written out of the screenplay without us missing a thing. Had the writers focused more tightly on Dracula as their central antagonist, and made his pursuit by the legal system the central conflict, it would've worked better. It'd have felt infinitely more urgent and intimate as we saw the ultimate narcissist attempt his ultimate plan of world domination. As is, every time we cut back to these mobsters, I could feel that 93-minute runtime getting unnecessarily bogged down.
Lastly, I don't think most of the narration from Renfield was necessary. Most of what he says, as in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020), just over-explains what we could've already gathered from observing the actors' body language.
Overall, Renfield is much more fun than it has any right to be. Even with its flaws, it's got so much energy, likable performances, well-crafted action sequences, and enough thematic heart to stick the landing. It doesn't break any new ground, but if you've got me curious about what a sequel would look like, you've definitely done something right.
You can watch the trailer for Renfield here: https://youtu.be/6LmO6rmDW08?si=W2bz3d1ucgm5LYCh
You can rent or buy the film here: https://youtu.be/ov0RMmUqR7M?si=ZYV6d4IsXhKncbVI