Renfield – movie review

Nosferatu meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Analyze This! in Renfield.  In the hands of director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), Renfield has a lot going for it, but also has a few bats loose in the belfry.

The film cleverly takes a minor character from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula – the count’s deranged familiar R. M. Renfield – and casts him as the hero of this story. The script oddly seems to conflate him with Jonathan Harker, but never mind. The film is set in present day New Orleans, but under Dracula’s power, Renfield has hardly aged in the nearly 150 years of their acquaintance. But now he wants out, and is attending group therapy to work through his feelings about his demonic boss.

That was the movie I was here for. Framed through a contemporary lens, the story of an abused servant coming to terms with his awful, controlling boss is both topical and potentially hilarious. But somewhere along the way, that movie got lost. Ryan Ridley, who has a long list of television credits, is listed as the screenwriter; but Ava Tramer gets a credit for “additional material” – often code for the studio bringing someone in to punch up the script. And she’s unlikely to have been the only one.

So instead of a taut, supernatural workplace comedy, we get a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Gangsters, corrupt cops, body horror, a love interest, and a sub-plot involving sisters coming to terms with their father’s death all get an airing. It even tries to deliver a heartwarming message at the end. So Renfield ends up being a bit of a spare-parts movie.

Lucky then that beneath all that, the film manages to breathe. For a start, it’s a lot of fun. For all its wobbly script, McKay keeps it rumbling along, barely pausing for even a moment. He also injects  a ton of keenly observed humour, although the density of jokes wanes a bit as the film goes on. Kinetic action sequences – many of them extremely gory, so be warned – are key and McKay delivers them with bloody style. And the film clocks in at an easily digestible 90-odd minutes; always a plus. It also features a great cast who elevate the material, possibly more than it really deserves.

Nicholas Hoult (The Menu) leads as Renfield, and proves very capable as the conflicted title character. Awkwafina (The Farewell) is similarly good as the no-nonsense cop Rebecca Quincy. However the romantic chemistry the script (bizarrely) calls for is lacking from both of them. Ben Schwarz (Music) is perfectly cast as slimy gangster Tedward Lobo; but the great Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Promise) is sadly under-utilised as his crime-boss mother Bellafrancesca. Look out too for Brandon James Scott (Ghosts – TV) who has some fine moments as the facilitator of the therapy group. But of course, the film belongs to Nicolas Cage (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent) as Dracula. One thing you can always say about Cage is that he commits to the bit – and this is no different. He chews the scenery magnificently, and his scenes with Hoult are some of the best in the movie.

Renfield ends up being a “coulda been” movie. It had great potential, but somewhere between first draft and final product, it seems to have lost its way. Even so, as a breezy if bizarre comedy-horror, it still ticks a lot of boxes.

David Edwards

Other reviews you might enjoy: