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Director: Chris McKay
Screenplay: Ryan Ridley, Robert Kirkman
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina
Review: David Stephens
Henchmen and sidekicks get a raw deal in movies. In horror films, they tend to get stereotyped as simple-minded and easily manipulated, usually with a deformity of some kind. Try to think of the name “Igor” without thinking of someone lisping “Yesh Marshter!” and digging up graves for their haughty boss. However, in the classic Bela Lugosi version of Dracula in 1931, US character actor Dwight Frye brought a minor character to scene-stealing life and made him iconic. In Tod Browning’s film (markedly different to the book), Renfield takes the place of Jonathan Harker as the solicitor that enables Dracula’s trip to England after falling under his influence. Frye plays him in a hugely melodramatic fashion, bouncing off the walls in an asylum and trying to follow his commands from a cell. His portrayal became iconic and the foundation for other actors to provide their eccentric take on R.M. Renfield, such as Tom Waits, Klaus Kinski, and Peter MacNicol. And now he gets his own movie, with Nicholas Hoult taking the lead role as the usually supporting character in a comedic follow-up to the classic storyline. Directed by Christopher McKay (The Tomorrow War and … err … The Lego Batman Movie), it was written as a direct sequel to Browning’s aforementioned film. Oh… and it has Nicholas Cage in a “supporting role” as Count Dracula! So, what in the name of Zeus’s butthole is going on!?
As seen in the trailers it starts with Robert Montague Renfield (Hoult) in modern-day New Orleans, sitting in a self-help group populated by people who are in abusive relationships. He was originally scouting the collective for victims for Count Dracula (Cage), who is recuperating in a dilapidated hospital after being nearly fried by vampire hunters (including William Ragsdale from the original Fright Night as a priest!). But he has become inspired to go the Dexter route and only supply victims that he thinks deserve the big bite. Despite this, Dracula prefers innocent blood for faster recovery and is getting tired of his servant’s newly acquired conscience. To this already fractious mix, add an organised crime syndicate that has the city’s cops in its pocket, Awkwafina as a revenge-seeking police officer, the ancient vampire’s sudden disposition for world domination, and you’ve got bloody mayhem in the Big Easy.
It's easy to call this film a comedy-horror, but that belies the frenetic pace of the storyline, which often goes in different ways than you may have expected from the spoilery trailers. Let’s just say that the crime-family angle allows good excuses for spectacular gore fests. The story is very slight and pretty daft, which has caused criticism from some areas about “wasted opportunities” which could have focused on a more coherent and deeper use of the source material. But given how much the character of Daddy Drac has been used and abused over the years, that’s not much of a reason to moan. The fact is that Renfield is an eminently enjoyable offering that most savvy horror fans will lap up and should go down well with a general audience as well (assuming they don’t mind a bit of blood). We saw it on a Saturday night screening with a full crowd and it seemed to go down an absolute treat.
It plays so well for a number of reasons. First off, despite some reviews bemoaning that Cage’s Dracula is side-lined, he most definitely is not. He’s a strong presence for practically all of the film, even when in “badly sunburnt” mode. Secondly, this is prime Cage, who’s having a ball and loving the opportunity, without going too far over the top. Part Bela Lugosi, part Christopher Lee, and part Dr Evil, it’s a lovely ripe performance that goes from appropriately hammy to genuinely chilling at times. Best of all is the fact that the film inserts Cage and Holt into the footage of the 1931 Dracula and it looks authentic, with the actor looking and behaving uncannily like Lugosi at certain points. Genius! The top hat and needle teeth are also a homage to Lon Chaney Sr in London After Midnight. In short, Cage is superbly watchable and matches expectations as portrays the egotistical blood-sucker with a god complex and absolutely no empathy. He also avoids the temptation to go full “Sesame St” with the accent and cackle.
However, seeing as Holt is the lead character, he does a pretty good job of sparring with his overbearing boss. Munching on insects to get a life-force boost, which enables some flippy-kung-fu and limb-ripping, there’s a mix of super-hero and victim given to the character. Holt goes full Hugh Grant in his performance, which works for the role and helps him develop a core of sympathy, despite him basically being a violent serial killer and villain-enabler. This brings us to another crowd-pleasing attribute of the film, the gory fight scenes. Seriously. These are jaw-dropping and Evil Dead levels in the later stages. Heads are punched off, faces are ripped away, and … best of all … arms are pulled out of their sockets and used as javelins to nail SWAT guys to the wall. Ludicrous but cool! There’s even a Mortal Kombat X-ray-style brutality where a character is pummelled in the stomach, causing their insides to shoot out both ends. If that’s not a good night out at the cinema, then we don’t know what is!
If there is a criticism to be made, it’s that the tone can be a bit uneven at times. So we’ll go from some pathos about Renfield and his guilt complex to gags about coachloads of young cheerleaders (“Females?”, “Don’t make this sexual”). To be fair, some of the one-liners are superbly delivered (“Don’t you know who I am?! I’m Ted Lobo”, “I’m Dracula”, “You win!”) and are pretty good, although the final stinger about Dracula blood is pushing it a bit too far. But Awkwafina delivers an f-bomb like no one else and her frustrated attempts to combat police corruption are golden for the most part. That’s the thing with Renfield, if you’re a horror fan there’s plenty of stuff that’s going to win you over and distract from the silliness and gimmicks that come when you over-analyse it too much. It’s a bit lazy to give Renfield pure superpowers with bugs and to give his anti-hero subplot (killing abusers to free their victims) only the briefest of consideration. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s incredibly fun to watch, especially in a large group. There’s also an inherent ingenuity that underlines some of the horror tropes. Brilliantly, the banal lettering on a welcome mat is apparently enough to provide an invitation for a vampire to enter a dwelling. Little touches like that are much appreciated, as is the moment where a druggy Renfield-wannabee snorts a centipede rather than eating it! Renfield comments at one point that vampire lore has become so complicated that even he doesn’t know how to really finish one off. You gotta love that level of self-awareness in the screenplay.
In summary, despite a few minor shortcomings, Renfield is amazingly gory, unashamedly nuts, and relentlessly good-natured. Both Hoult and Awkwafina are charismatic and likeable in their roles, but of course, Cage remains a major draw. If it’s not a film of substance, it is most certainly one of fun. In other words, this movie does not suck. Go see it.
For a film about such an iconic villain and with so-much gratuitous blood-letting, this is an immensely likeable film with plenty of nods for devoted genre fans. Sure, some of the tonal shifts and broad comedy can jar at times. But overall, this is a great comic horror with Cage living his best un-life and Hoult enjoying hero status again. Lightweight but stuffed full of good-natured gore and fun.
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