Cage’s Operatic Splendor Makes Renfield a Debauched, Blood-Soaked Comedic Feast
The exuberantly gory Renfield from Chris McKay (The Tomorrow War) reminded me a heck of a lot of Wes Craven’s 1995 endeavor, Vampire in Brooklyn, starring Eddie Murphy and Angela Bassett. However, unlike that sadly underwhelming curiosity, this horror-action comedy actually works, pulling from a variety of influences, ranging from classic Universal monster movies and Hammer’s Christopher Lee vampire yarns to 1970s urban crime thrillers and popular EC Comics series like Tales from the Crypt.
It helps that McKay’s latest doesn’t have nearly as many cooks working in its kitchen. Robert Kirkman’s original idea is cleverly expanded on and playfully fleshed out by screenwriter Ryan Ridley. Star Nicolas Cage is content to gobble up the scenery with his larger-than-life performance yet still confident enough to play second fiddle to co-stars Nicholas Hoult, Awkwafina, and Shohreh Aghdashloo. McKay doesn’t overplay his hand, delivering a handful of wacky, blood-soaked action sequences that feature crack stunt choreography, superb practical makeup effects, and crackerjack editing courtesy of Ryan Folsey, Giancarlo Ganziano, and Mako Kamitsuna.
That’s not to say it’s entirely seamless or that all the elements work in harmony. Much like Craven’s effort, the horror and the comedy are not always in complementary balance. Some of the jokes fall oddly flat, while Hoult’s therapeutic voiceover aimlessly explains what’s going on instead of supplying insight, context, or amusingly self-reflective commentary on the violent and nasty action. A few potentially riotous gags are winningly set up — only to frustratingly never pay off, making me wonder if a few key scenes were left on the cutting room floor to try and keep the running time to a brisk 93 minutes.
But where Vampire in Brooklyn wasted a superior performance by Bassett and shockingly never allowed Murphy to fully transform into a demonic force of evil, that is not the case with Renfield. Hoult is positively delightful. I love how he appears to be combining quirks and traits from some of his previous roles in features as diverse as Warm Bodies, The Favourite, and even Mad Max: Fury Road. As the title character, Hoult’s jittery, insecure physicality gives way to a dynamic athleticism every time Renfield eats a bug, and somehow he makes this transformation feel unconventionally unique.
Awkwafina is in fine comedic form as a determined New Orleans cop who stumbles into a supernatural situation far outside the norm, while Aghdashloo is a fiery sensation as the leader of a massive crime syndicate who has the majority of the city’s police force on her payroll. Most of the action scenes are staged with inventive flair, particularly one gigantic battle — drowning in blood and soaring in brutally pulverizing imagination — set on the outside staircase of a three-story apartment complex.
But this is Cage’s showcase, and he makes the most of it. After returning to freewheeling, unconventional form in a series of idiosyncratic sensations, such as Joe, Mom and Dad, Mandy, Color Out of Space, Pig, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it was only a matter of time before a director took the actor off the leash entirely. Cage’s Dracula is a viciously evil egotist who slits throats with playful indifference and slaughters innocents with carnally voracious elation. It’s a marvelous display of venal depravity, and I can’t help but think both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee would heartily approve as the actor pays homage to each of them while also making author Bram Stoker’s iconic character distinctively his own.
There’s not much to say about the plot. It’s a lot of dopy hokum, but I’m fairly certain that’s by design. The basics are that, after more than a century of being Dracula’s devoted, bug-eating lackey, Renfield is beginning to wonder if he’s had enough. After attending weekly meetings at a support group for people looking to get out of toxic relationships, the frazzled lawyer-turned-minion has concluded it’s time he stepped out of his master’s vampiric shadow.
Ridley’s screenplay is more contrived than that simplistic synopsis, of course, but not by as much as early scenes may lead audience members to believe. Instead, McKay toys around with filmmaking styles ranging from Tod Browning’s gothic framing of 1931’s Dracula to the more colorfully sensationalistic rendering of the character and his environments found in the Christopher Lee Hammer films released between 1958 and 1973. He mixes in action sequences reminiscent of Hong Kong staples from the likes of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Corey Yeun, while also trying to channel his inner Evil Dead–era Sam Raimi along the way.
Renfield is hardly perfect, and there were times where my mind did wander and I began to think the film was going to stumble past the point of recovery. But there is so much fun to be had that these moments of imbalance never caused my affections to significantly deteriorate. Besides, Cage’s Wagnerian theatricality as Dracula is enough to warrant the ticket price all by itself. Watching him sink his teeth into this nonsense with such malevolent relish is a deliciously debauched feast worth gorging on.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)