Suffering from genre dysphoria, Renfield has all elements in place for a hilarious comedy but ultimately takes itself just a little too seriously for its concept and, of course, the iconography of Nicolas Cage playing Dracula, a role for which he was essentially born. Putting the actor in a cage, Chris McKay’s reimagining of the legendary horror character from the perspective of his “familiar” R.M. Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) gives us a Dracula who is, for much of the runtime, nursed back to health. Attempting to escape a toxic relationship, Hoult’s Renfield finds himself in a support group at a local church, much to the annoyance of his controlling boss. That concept alone might have made for a subversive modern-day reimagining, but a convoluted plot involving a fellow support group member and a crime family gets in the way.
A real-estate attorney who initially comes to Count Dracula’s Xanadu-like mansion looking to make a deal, Renfield ends up as a fixer of sorts. Infected with some of the superpowers of his boss, he relies on the blood of insects for his strength. After getting literally and figuratively burned, Drac and his failure start fresh in New Orleans, where Renfield nurses his boss back to full health.
This is where the plot gets in the way of what might have been a compelling, quirky hangout movie. For his boss, Renfield ends up tracking the boyfriend of a fellow support group member looking for a fresh body that won’t be missed. He stumbles into a drug deal gone wrong, ending in more bloodshed than expected, and in the process making a new enemy: the cartoonish villain Edward “Teddy” Lobo, an enforcer for the Lobo Crime Family.
The Lobos have a history with the New Orleans PD and it’s been the dream of traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) to nail them in the act. The daughter of a decorated officer, Rebecca is convinced the Lobos put a hit out on her father. Meanwhile, Drac craves innocent blood, sending Renfield out to find more suitable victims than the criminals he’s taken home to his master. He hits the Latin Quarter and finds himself at a cheesy theme restaurant against the advice of his support group. His goal of abducting a group of cheerleaders before the Lobos intervene sets up a bloody meet cute with Officer Quincy.
What follows is a plot that ultimately feels like a convoluted remnant of Universal’s Dark Universe, an attempt at building a cinematic landscape around the classic monsters that made the studio. The bulk of Internet joke fodder, those plans died on the launch pad with 2017’s poorly received The Mummy, which modernized Universal’s classic monsters while trying to set Russell Crowe up for a future Jekyll and Hyde adventure.
While McKay doesn’t entirely waste a hilarious concept, most of the best one-liners come from Awkwafina, an aggressive cop on a mission who has some sympathy for Renfield as he attempts to break free from his toxic relationship. As far as concepts and casting go, all the tools are here for something funny, weird, and timely––it’s a shame it can’t get out of its own way. Even the presence of the brilliant legend Shohreh Aghdashloo as Ella Lobo, the matriarch of the crime family, can’t save what feels like a distracting and unnecessary plot.
What works best is the core relationship between an abusive, demanding employer and his employee––the comic possibilities here might have been best realized by someone like John Waters, who undoubtedly would add a dark, homoerotic subtext. Caught between a horror action flick that delivers gallons of splatter and a well-cast high-concept comedy, both seemed pushed aside for mediocre thrills and a few chuckles.
Renfield is now in theaters.