Thrall Tales and Familiar Faces
The thing about some classic stories is that there have been so many film versions of them that we seem to have reached a point of creative saturation with them – there just doesn't seem to be any desire for new ones. Recent films based on reliable old bankers like Tarzan, Robin Hood and King Arthur haven't really paid the rent, although of course modern sensibilities are probably a bit uncomfortable with a canon which largely revolves around white male heteronormativity.
In other cases, it's just the original story which has apparently fallen out of favour – spin-offs and derivative works continue to turn up on a regular basis. There hasn't been a 'straight' movie version of Dracula from a major studio in thirty years, but since then there's been a spin-off centred on Van Helsing, an attempt at a revisionist origin story, and various lower-budget films that haven't really made an impression. I was about to suggest this was a recent phenomenon, but then of course, people were making films about Dracula's pet dog as long ago as 1977. So the appearance of a film about Dracula's helpmeet shouldn't really come as a surprise.
This is Renfield, directed by Chris McKay (who previously did a rather good film about the Lego version of a different sort of bat man). Renfield, for the uninitiated, is a lunatic in Stoker's original novel; he falls under Dracula's sway and starts eating insects and spiders (a sort of cargo-cult version of vampirism). In the movies, when he appears at all, he usually gets amalgamated with either Jonathan Harker or Harker's boss Hawkins. The Hammer film series largely replaced him with a character called Klove, although another character called Ludwig closely resembles the Stoker version.
As you can perhaps imagine, playing Dracula's insane sidekick gives a performer a certain latitude when it comes to pitching their performance, and some people have gone howlingly over-the-top as a result. Keeping things a bit more under control in the new film is Nicholas Hoult, who is living in present-day New Orleans. He has been in Dracula's service for nearly a century (there is an elaborate call-back to the Tod Browning version of Dracula) and is currently helping to nurse the Count back to health, if that's the right word, following his latest near-demise. Dracula is played (and very much not underplayed) by Nicolas Cage.
The main gag of the new film, which is largely a comedy, is that Renfield has taken to going to a support group for people trapped in abusive or controlling relationships, clearly seeing something of his own situation in their problems. Naturally the other people there don't realise that much of what he says about his boss having the power of life and death over him is literally true. Dracula, on the other hand, is testy and complains that Renfield isn't doing enough to help him restore his strength – he just wants to prey on some unsuspecting tourists, or nuns, or a bus full of cheerleaders. Male or female cheerleaders, enquires Renfield delicately. 'Don't make this a sexual thing,' scowls the Count.
Meanwhile, ass-kicking traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) is engaged in a one-woman crusade to bring down the Lobos, a powerful crime family responsible for the death of her father. She eventually ticks them off enough for a hit to be ordered on her while she's in the same restaurant where Renfield is looking for a snack for his master. The hapless thrall is sufficiently impressed by her steely refusal to be intimidated that he ends up saving her life; she inspires him to try and make a change in his situation and break free from Dracula's control. The Lobos, meanwhile, are looking for Renfield and end up tracking him back to Dracula's lair. The Count decides this band of ruthless killers may be his kind of people, and proposes an alliance...
It sounds a fairly straightforward story, but to be honest the film wanders about quite a lot in its midsection before rallying near the end. This is about as short as mainstream films get nowadays, at only 90 minutes or so, which means that it never gets slow or dull but also struggles to develop any of its ideas properly. Not that they are tremendously original: the intersection of traditional vampirism and organised crime isn't a particularly new plot device, while the familiar-in-therapy conceit is exactly the sort of thing that they've been doing on What We Do in the Shadows for years now.
For something being pitched as a comedy, Renfield is never as consistently funny as What We Do in the Shadows (the movie or the first few years of the TV show, anyway). What it ends up as is a sort of knockabout action-oriented splatstick with some extremely gory bits and not much subtlety to a lot of the jokes. It may not help that two of the main performers are Awkwafina and Ben Schwartz, neither of whom are synonymous with delicate understatement; Awkwafina's performance, I have to say, is very possibly not good enough – though she's saddled with a character who's two-dimensional at best.
Nicholas Hoult, on the other hand, is very good, and manages to keep his scenes very watchable as usual. But the film only really comes to life – perhaps I should say rises from the coffin? – when Nicolas Cage is on-screen. This is an archetypal Cage performance, operatically over-the-top by any conventional metric, but also containing real wit and depth. And it must be said that Cage makes a tremendous Dracula – the fact that he sort-of resembles both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee obviously helps, but he provides the movie with its only real moments of menace. It would be wonderful – though it probably won't happen – to see him play the character again in a less-comedic context; as it is, Cage's turn is by far the best reason to see this film.
When Cage isn't on, the film is a rather confused mixture of action, broad comedy, and gore, with a variable tone that Nicholas Hoult by himself isn't quite good enough to salvage. The lengthy and elaborate fight sequences feel like they've been transplanted in from a different movie; they're not bad, they just don't feel like they belong in what started off looking like a fairly witty spoof of Dracula. But by the end this has turned into something more generic and less rewarding. It has funny moments, and it's usually visually interesting, but less fighting, more Cage, and more ideas would have made for a much better movie.