My first proper introduction to Dracula was the 1931 Tod Browning film starring Bela Lugosi. Released the same year as James Whale’s equally seminal Frankenstein, Lugosi’s Transylvanian count would shape the pop culture image of vampires in the century to come. Even so, according to conventional wisdom the movie aged far worse than ol’ flattop. And to be sure, Browning’s direction is largely static, the script stagey (with it being based on a play instead of the Bram Stoker novel), and all the best scenes occur inside of the first 20 minutes. But Lugosi? He remains forever, preternaturally magnetic.
Much of this common critique is true, but there is one other virtue to this Universal chiller that’s gone largely overlooked: R.M. Renfield. Created for the screen by character actor Dwight Frye, this previously minor subplot in Stoker’s book became the veritable protagonist—a poor, dim schmuck doomed to be Dracula’s lackey and punching bag. I would even argue Frye’s unhinged cackle has likewise lingered for a hundred years.
It would seem Universal and director Chris McKay agree since the studio’s latest attempt to exhume their Universal Monsters brand for the 21st century has reconfigured Frye’s Renfield (quite literally by way of some digitally altered 1931 footage) from the role of pseudo-protagonist to the bonafide thing in this week’s Renfield.
As reinterpreted by the frequently busy leading man Nicholas Hoult, he’s even become something of a superhero, only with a lot more gore in the scenes where he decides to disobey his undead boss. But lest you fret about insubordination, please consider that Renfield’s employer is the worst. Dracula’s Castle is the very definition of a “toxic workplace environment,” and when the damnable manager there is played by Nicolas Cage, his torrents of abuse and microaggressions atop Renfield’s head are the stuff of hellfire… They’re also a sublime respite from an otherwise jumbled grab-bag of ideas and franchise seedlings that never take root.
The beginning of the movie is sharp though. As we meet Cage and Hoult’s versions of Dracula and Renfield, the impression is given that these two have let their dysfunction linger since time immemorial. As aforementioned, their faces are superimposed on Lugosi and Frye’s performances, and when a character later asks if the shockingly agile Renfield fought in the war, Hoult asks if the person means the Great War (what they called WWI before it got a sequel). Most of this is established during an amusing if hurried exposition dump by Renfield as he spills his guts to other victims of abuse at an anonymous self-help group. He’s there because after decades of despair, the poor guy is ready to improve his station in life.
We soon learn that means wearing pastel sweaters and filling a chintzy apartment with the contents of an entire IKEA catalog. This is a great setup, particularly as “The Master” is wheezing in the margins, with Cage’s Dracula suffering from obsolescence in the 21st century by hiding in a dingy warehouse and looking closer to Gary Oldman’s more disheveled take on the monster in Uncle Francis’ 1992 version. But slowly, sinisterly, Dracula begins finding victims of his own to rejuvenate his blood after Renfield ghosts him. The patsy thought the boss might fade away if he stopped bringing a fresh supply of victims—plus he’s now enamored with the One Good Cop™ in New Orleans, Rebecca (Awkwafina), who has frequent need of Renfield’s superhuman abilities while chasing a local crime family syndicate that’s corrupted the Big Easy, including mob boss Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her ne’er do well son, Tedward (Ben Schwartz).
If this is beginning to sound a tad cluttered and distracted, just wait until Dracula comes out of his coffin and starts making moves to enter the NOLA gang wars.
At the top of Renfield’s plus column is Cage, who is every bit as magnificent as you imagined after hearing he’s playing Dracula. While etched in Lugosi’s image and iconography, this performance is pure silent era scenery-chewing. With filed teeth and a Cheshire grin that suggests what Lon Chaney Sr. might’ve done with the character if he lived to play him in ‘31, Cage brings a heightened physicality to his monster worthy of the Expressionists. It’s in the same campy key as Cage’s most deranged studio efforts—Face/Off or the Ghost Rider flicks—yet still features a genuine sense of affection about building menace. With Renfield, he acts like the gaslighting husband, but with Renfield’s friends there’s a maximalist nastiness that’s occasionally unsettling.
Hoult, meanwhile, holds his own while extracting some of the same vulnerability he infused to Peter III on Hulu’s The Great. Once again he makes a pathetic character (somehow) not entirely repugnant, even as Renfield repeatedly commits despicable acts. The codependency between him and Cage is perversely funny. It’s also too rarely featured in a movie that seems unable or unwilling to recognize where its assets truly lie.
Whenever Renfield and Dracula are together, the film works. But another way to put that is the movie only is on the right track for about a third of its 93-minute running time. The rest of the pic is an incoherent melange of competing impulses and ideas that suggest McKay, his screenwriters Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman, and/or the studio never agreed on what the movie should be. Thus they apparently decided in a committee room that it’ll be many things: a schlocky comedy, a gory action movie where Renfield is constantly called a “hero” by Awkwafina’s Rebecca, even as he pops goons’ heads like they’re water balloons stuffed with red paint, and a dead-on-arrival rom-com between Renfield and Rebecca.
Indeed, Awkwafina is one of the most interesting actors of her generation, being able to pivot seamlessly from comedy to drama (if you haven’t, please check out The Farewell). Yet she is left adrift in this scatological hybrid, cast against a lead with whom she has little chemistry and in a script that reduces her character to the entirely obligatory love interest. Although that might undersell just how disastrously unnecessary the cop and robbers plot undergirding Dracula’s return really turns out to be.
The movie is a series of disoriented lunges between tones and genres that might only make sense if someone in the creative process is still intent on making something like “the Dark Universe” a thing. If it didn’t work as a complete Marvel Studios clone in the 2010s, Renfield would seem to suggest there is interest in doing it as a gory raunchy-comedy franchise where Dracula stays a big bad and his demented servant now gets to make superhero poses while landing on his enemies (except they explode into geysers of blood afterward). There’s definitely room for a sequel when Renfield ends, and it vaguely feels like a threat.
As it turns out, history does rhyme, and the characters of Dracula and Renfield once again find themselves elevating a troubled production. If you come for just those two performances, you’ll have an okay time, but suffice to say this one won’t be living on in the decades and centuries to come.
Renfield is in theaters Friday, April 15.