New Orleans has rarely seemed less appealing or inviting than in Renfield, a gruesome horror comedy starring Nicholas Hoult as the eponymous, bug-eating “familiar” of that legendary bloodsucker Count Dracula, who is here essayed with customarily gonzo gusto by Nicolas Cage. Yet this truly awful film wastes Cage, who occupies not so much a secondary role as an incidental one, as well as other established talents. It’s a one-joke movie and the one joke isn’t funny.
Hoult’s Renfield narrates the film — all the better to cover up some glaring inconsistencies — as he recounts how he fell under the sway of the Transylvanian count. The filmmakers have digitally superimposed images of Hoult and Cage over footage from the original 1931 version of Dracula. It’s a neat touch, but after that, it’s all downhill.
Having relocated to New Orleans after a previous last attempt to vanquish Dracula, Renfield procures victims for his demanding master while also attending support group sessions for people in toxic relationships. These scenes, such as they are, play like sub-standard sitcom schtick, only there’s never a punchline.
The film’s leading lady is Awkwafina, as police officer Rebecca Quincy. She first meets Renfield — and they don’t meet cute — when he single-handedly annihilates a team of gun-toting goons in a local nightclub. Rebecca is hell-bent on bringing down the Lobo crime family, represented by matriarch Shoreh Aghdashloo (in dragon-lady mode) and her twitchy, irresponsible son (Ben Schwartz). Why is Rebecca so obsessed with the Lobos? Because they killed her police-officer father.
Screenwriter Ryan Ridley, whose previous experience has primarily been in television (Rick and Morty, Community) leaves no cliché unexplored. His screenplay is based on producer Robert Kirkman’s “original idea,” which may be the biggest laugh in the entire movie because originality — like subtlety — is not on Renfield’s agenda. The direction, by Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie) is not incompetent, which is the nicest thing that can be said about it.
The slick action sequences, replete with geysers of blood, decapitations, and severed limbs, seem (heavily) influenced by Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and the “vampire/gangster” notion — which comes into play very late in the game — was better handled in the 1992 John Landis film Innocent Blood. Neither of the earlier films were great, but in comparison to Renfield, they shine.
Hoult, who was so terrific in last year’s The Menu, seems a bit dazed here, and one can hardly blame him. He deserves better. This is also Awkwafina’s most awkward performance to date. She appears to go out of her way to make Rebecca abrasive and even unlikable. Indeed, Renfield is a film almost utterly bereft of likable or sympathetic characters.
There are also maddening lapses in logic, like how the police issue a city-wide warning that Rebecca is a wanted fugitive, yet shortly thereafter she is having (a bug-free) lunch with Renfield in an outdoor bistro in broad daylight, or how quickly she recovers from a gunshot wound to the shoulder. By that point, however, Renfield is a lost cause. No need for crucifixes or garlic or wooden stakes — Renfield is dead on arrival.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies. © 2023, Mark Burger.
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