The San Juan Daily Star
‘Renfield’ review: Dracula, worst boss ever
By Manohla Dargis
Count Dracula has been dead for so long and gone through so many iterations — exotic, satanic, romantic — that it’s almost surprising there’s any juice left in the thirsty old boy. Yet, here he is again, resurrected by a glorious, vamping Nicolas Cage, swinging a cape, baring his fangs and stealing his every scene. The Count is playing second banana in “Renfield,” but he’s nevertheless a main attraction in this cheerfully disposable entertainment, which perfectly understands that sometimes all you want from a movie is 93 minutes of well-wrought absurdity.
I imagine that the pitch to the studio went something like this: “It’s today, and Dracula (we’d love to get Cage) is in New Orleans for the tax breaks, out of money and, long story short, almost drained of his powers. He’s basically toast, and our guy, the Count’s unhappy servant, Renfield (a Nicholas Hoult type, relatable, smooth, good-looking) — after years of groveling and scarfing bugs — has had it. We want to make this a rocking action movie, with lots of blood and kick-ass fights, but also funny, so Renfield enters a codependency group to purge his personal demon. Has anyone heard of Stuart Smalley?”
That’s more or less how “Renfield” plays, and although it’s wittier and slicker than my spurious studio-speak, it is about as condensed. Fast, tight and blunt, the movie gets right to the point with a characteristically American mix of therapy-speak and jokey violence, and it largely stays on point. The filmmakers — Robert Kirkman cooked up the story, Ryan Ridley wrote the script and Chris McKay directed — don’t laboriously reintroduce Dracula, exhume his origin story or invent a childhood trauma to somehow explain him. After a century of pop-culture celebrity and box-office success, there’s no need: He is what he is, a vampire.
He’s also — unsurprisingly, given the job’s grisly requirements — a terrible boss, which the movie uses to economically establish how the long-suffering Renfield joins the support group. There, coaxed by the group’s leader (Brandon Scott Jones) and surrounded by glum faces and chirpy affirmations, Renfield confronts his low self-esteem and reliance on his toxic benefactor. He listens and he shares, and although the other members are puzzled by the odder details of his relationship, the group boosts his confidence enough that he embarks on a lifestyle makeover. He combs his hair, brightens his color palette, finds his smile.
You don’t need to know Stuart Smalley — the unsinkable positive thinker first created and performed by Al Franken on “Saturday Night Live” in 1991 — to enjoy Renfield’s transformation. (Franken also played the character in Harold Ramis’ 1995 film “Stuart Saves His Family” — it’s good!) But knowing Stuart sweetens the joke that Renfield, described in Bram Stoker’s novel as “morbidly excitable,” would embark on journey of hopeful self-invention. Whether or not Smalley served as an inspiration, this movie works partly because, for all the comedy it wrings from the support group, it takes the sincerity of Renfield’s journey seriously (enough).
Hoult externalizes Renfield’s turmoil with precision — his open, lucid face waxes and wanes with dread and optimism — and a mellifluous voice-over that grounds you in the story. This Renfield is nicer and certainly cuter than he’s often portrayed, and there’s little of the opportunism and none of the wild menace that made Dwight Frye’s interpretation in the 1931 “Dracula” so unnervingly memorable. Instead, Hoult invests the character with a tenderness that lets you see the person he was before he went astray. He also helps sell, passably, some flirty business with a local cop, Rebecca (Awkwafina), a foul-mouthed, half-baked iteration on the action-flick cliche of the strong female character.
The character is a drag, however amusingly sketched in by Awkwafina, but it isn’t a deal breaker. Genre movies, even a hybrid such as “Renfield” (which, like so many movies now, effectively becomes a superhero movie), depend on conventions; what matters is how they’re worked, tweaked, recast. McKay and company have loaded the movie with other familiar fixings, too — gangsters, corrupt cops, a dead parent, truckloads of corpses — but for the most part, they’ve done so with an insistently light, at times surprisingly warm touch. Like Cage’s Dracula, who lights the darkness with great delicacy, a sharply honed, knowing smile and a voice that purrs only to roar, the filmmakers are having fun, not world-building and mythmaking. What a relief!
Rated R for extreme gun and vampire violence. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In theaters.