‘Renfield’ Review – Nic Cage Dracula Movie Squanders Resources

After 100 years and dozens of renditions, the movies have seen just about every variation on Dracula. We’ve seen scary Draculas, funny Draculas, old Draculas, young Draculas, sexy Draculas, silent Draculas, loud Draculas, and, yes, racist Draculas. So, a new Dracula? Doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping. Or, it didn’t–until March of last year, when photos circulated of Nicolas Cage, in a red velvet suit, looking like the ghost of Pat Riley. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but these were worth two: Hell yeah!

Has any actor at any moment been more perfectly suited to play Bram Stoker’s archetypal vampire than Nicolas Cage right now? At 59 years old, Cage possesses the widow’s peak and reclusive aura required to embody the character. But he’s also the rare actor with the personal mythos and outsized presence necessary to transcend it. And he has some experience with nape-nibbling, too. In the 1988 cult classic horror comedy Vampire’s Kiss, he famously put the vamp in vampire, establishing his singular capacity for batshit camp. (Yes, that’s the one where he eats a live cockroach, screams the ABCs at his therapist, and begs strangers to stab him with a wooden plank.) Vampire’s Kiss remains Cage’s favorite movie he’s ever made. What a gift that he’d be reprising that mid-Atlantic August Coppola accent and donning fangs once more!

Or, what a gift it seemed. Unfortunately, the latest entry into the Dracula canon, Renfield, doesn’t live up to the photos of Cage in that fiery fit. And not just because Cage’s Dracula is a secondary character. In Nicholas Hoult, who plays Dracula’s emotionally abused henchman, R.M. Renfield, the film has a solid center. His century-in-the-making crisis of conscience lets Hoult–dressed like he just got off tour with My Chemical Romance–do what he does best: play a conflicted sort of boyish innocence. With the help of a modern day support group, he recognizes that he’s in a toxic codependent relationship, and he wants out (Huzzah!). It’s not a bad conceit, and when the film leans into it, it’s at its best. But Renfield writers Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman (surely with studio vampires breathing down their necks) manufacture unnecessary cobwebs, muddling and convoluting the story.

As Renfield tries to extricate himself from his increasingly hangry boss, he becomes tangled up with another evil force: the Lobo crime family, a cartoonishly bad bunch fronted by its imperious heir-apparent, Tedward (Ben Schwartz, to his credit, having the time of his life). The Lobos control modern-day New Orleans, much to the chagrin of the city’s lone good cop, Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina, doing her best with tired cliches). Quincy lost her father at the hands of the Lobo family, and though she’s a lowly traffic cop, she’s determined to exact some form of justice. Now, to sum it all up: What we have here is a lost man and a righteous woman—each single, gifted at combat, and with a shared enemy. You don’t need supernatural powers to guess what ensues.

Eternal life never seemed so unbearable.

Ultimately, Renfield may be about vampires, but it feels as though it was made by zombies. While I wasn’t actually expecting a spiritual successor to Vampire’s Kiss out of a big-budget studio enterprise, I did hope that Renfield would dig its fangs into, well, something. Instead, director Chris McKay (whose past directorial credits include The Tomorrow War and The Lego Batman Movie) appropriates Nicolas Cage’s eccentricity for a movie that’s painfully conventional. Its primary preoccupation seems to be delivering superhero-style fight scenes into a technically non-superhero vehicle. When characters aren’t quipping in the Deadpool-derivative fashion that’s become the norm in these sorts of action comedies, they’re earnestly saying things like, “Shoot me like you shot my dad,” and “You’re the monster, Renfield.” All of which does serve one function: Eternal life never seemed so unbearable.

Renfield doesn’t just squander Cage and his costars. The film is technically set in New Orleans, but it sucks the life out of one of America’s most vibrant cities. McKay mostly keeps the camera close on his characters, neglecting the texture of the city in favor of bland neon background light and bad CGI. When the film does venture into the actual city, it can’t be bothered to explore beyond the top tourist attractions (hello, Café Du Monde!). Nicolas Cage lives in New Orleans; perhaps the film was set there merely to make the shoot more convenient for him.

After all, though Cage is mainly acting as a specter (a job he, by the way, performs compellingly), the film only makes sense because of his participation. Movie studios are getting cannier about SEO-baiting with concepts that are more fun to think–and post–about than actually watch (“Cage Dracula” being a search term on par with “Cocaine Bear”). But you don’t need to spend tens of millions of dollars to make a viral meme. If these sorts of movies want to own the conversation beyond a single news cycle, they’d do well to take some risks, have some fun, you know, maybe even let their protagonists recite the ABCs all the way through.

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Max Cea is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in GQ, Vulture, and Billboard, among other publications.   

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