“RENFIELD”
Starring Nicolas Cage, Nicholas Hoult, Nora Lum
Written by Ryan Ridley
Story by Robert Kirkman
Based on characters from the novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker
Directed by Chris McKay

By Matt Neufeld
April 13, 2023

The idea of focusing on the character R. M. Renfield as the main character, a prominent supporting character, a co-lead character or even as a vital minor character in the seemingly neverending story of good ol’ Count Dracula has always been a major part of the Dracula canon, of course, and the attendant idea of basing a main Dracula-oriented story from Renfield’s point of view isn’t new, either. Concurrently, the idea of Renfield, who is Dracula’s loyal servant, wanting to leave Dracula isn’t new, either. In fact, all of these story elements go straight back all the way to the original source material, Irish author Abraham Stoker’s classic 1897 Gothic horror supernatural classic novel “Dracula.”

So all of those Dracula, vampire, horror and supernatural fans who think that the basic premise of the new, wholly-disappointing movie disaster “Renfield”–that Renfield suddenly decides to completely break free from Dracula’s power and strike out on his own–is new, novel or clever, that would be only the first of many disappointments.

The next major disappointment would be to expect that “Renfield” succeeds on any possible filmic level. This will be a disappointing expectation because this movie does indeed fail at every level–production, direction, writing, editing, pacing, casting, acting, mood, atmosphere, artistic focus, thematic direction, stylistic approach and consistency, special effects and make-up and even class and dignity.

“Renfield” is a confused, muddled, scattershot grade-F living dead movie in search of a movie. The filmmakers obviously couldn’t even decide, quite literally, what they wanted or hoped this failed project should be—a campy quirky comedic spoof, a genuine horror supernatural tale, an inventive modern-day take on the Dracula-Renfield story, some type of horror love story, some type of horror-infused crime drama, or some type of mish-mush-mash-up of all of the above. Horrendously, the movie doesn’t succeed in any of these areas: It’s not funny. It doesn’t work as satire. It’s not scary, creepy, spooky, chilling or thrilling. As noted, it’s not inventive, original or new. It doesn’t work at all as a love story. It doesn’t work as a horror crime drama. And it most certainly, assuredly doesn’t work as a combo meal of differing, mixed-together filmic stylistic genres.

“Renfield” flounders from the start, the movie never finds its footing or direction, and after some rushed, too-quick introductory exposition, the problems, inconsistencies, cliches and just plain bad decisions continue to pile up on, over, under and around everything that’s going on, and, too soon enough, viewers will start to relate all too well with Renfield’s desire to escape everything Dracula. Moviegoers will want to escape this telling of Dracula less than halfway through this torture chamber of movie failure horrors.

Even those horror fans, and movie fans in general, who had high expectations about the seemingly inventive casting of Nicolas Cage as Dracula will be disappointed. Cage so awkwardly, oddly and disjointedly camps it up as the prince of darkness on such an overall uneven level, his performance never fully resonates. Much like the overall movie itself, Cage’s acting here is just scattershot, all over the place, unhinged and, worst of all for any actor, often just incomprehensible. As in, viewers can’t even understand the corny dialogue he’s spewing out from the corny script. This is likely due to Cage’s and director Chris McKay’s miscalculations about Cage’s approach to the role. And, also, the mumbling likely has something to do with the grotesque layers of crocodile-like fake teeth the make-up crew unwisely stuffed into Cage’s unfortunate mouth.

Cage’s wildly over-the-top kitschy turn as the prince of darkness recalls at least another famous, similar major movie character lead role turn gone horribly wrong: Johnny Depp’s disastrous performance as Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s monstrous mess “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” from 2005.

“Renfield” tries to tell a story about how Renfield, still serving Dracula in modern-day New Orleans, tries to break free from Dracula and head out on his own. Which doesn’t make any sense from the start, considering that ol’ Drac is literally inside of Renfield’s head, fully able to see what Renfield is doing, fully able to control Renfield and his thoughts and actions and, basically, fully control Renfield as his servant. Also not making sense is Dracula’s insistence that Renfield go out and procure him fresh bodies and fresh blood–even after Dracula is obviously fully able to do such things. So when two major aspects of the basic story don’t make sense, don’t hold up and don’t really carry the main plot on a strong, steady level, even the most far-reaching willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t work.

Renfield’s goal to go out on his own simply can’t be believed because, at the same time, he does not possess the outright ability to go out on his own. How anyone thought they could base an entire movie on this essentially flimsy premise is one of the movie’s many machination mysteries.

While he’s out on his own, or, rather, lamely trying to be out on his own, Renfield meets and–apparently–falls for a cute, spunky, tough New Orleans city cop, Rebecca Quincy, also awkwardly played by actress Nora Sum, who also goes by Awkwafina. Sum, who does have a presence and who is undeniably cute, veers this way and that, in a performance almost as uneven as Cage’s. She, too, can’t seem to settle on a consistent acting level, straying from tough to funny to cute and back again, never fully landing on a solid characterization. McKay also strangely costumes Sum in a most clunky, unappealing cop uniform, and he has Sum’s long black hair mostly hidden, taking away much of Sum’s natural beauty and charm.

And Renfield, played solidly by Nicholas Hoult in the movie’s only real successful acting performance, doesn’t register an ounce of romantic chemistry with Quincy. There’s no romantic chemistry between the characters because the clunky, rushed and dumbed-down script doesn’t give them any real time for real romance, and there’s no romantic chemistry between the actors because they simply don’t generate any steam, heat or passion.

While Renfield tries to escape Dracula’s control and tries to generate some type of relationship with Rebecca, Dracula hatches some type of world domination plan with some of the most irritating, annoying, unpleasant and unlikeable stupid Mafia goons since the cadre of stupid Mafia goons forced onto the world in “The Sopranos.” That doesn’t work, either, as McKay and scriptwriter Ryan Ridley don’t, and can’t, give the entire underworld-Mafia alliance the proper time and effort that it needs to gather the appropriate amount of strength, power, suspense and fright potential that this particular plot point needed. As with everything else, McKay and Ridley speed through this part of the story in their usual scattershot manner.

The entire movie is amateurishly rushed in terms of timing, pacing, editing, blocking, camera work and direction. Like too many films these days, there’s too little time for subtlety, slowing down, breathing room and normal, well-timed and well-controlled patience and steady, mature pacing. McKay and Ridley are so intent on cramming, jamming and ramming so many disparate, unworkable ingredients down the viewer’s throats, it’s all ingested far too fast, leaving nothing but a sour, dour, bitter taste in the filmgoer’s mouth–and soul.

And then there’s the violence—sickening, disgusting, gross-out, stomach-upsetting and just overly gory, graphic and gruesome violence. There’s no need for the violence. We don’t need to see stomachs sliced open, arms pulled out of bodies, heads chopped off and other horrific bloody special effects. It’s mind-numbing, dumbed-down, mentally unstable even, and wholly unnecessary. Why anyone finds this type of gross, disgusting violence enjoyable is a mystery. The violence, too, doesn’t work in “Renfield.”

In the end, most of “Renfield” just doesn’t work.

Perhaps Hollywood, independent, regional and local filmmakers can learn a valuable, needed lesson with a flop like “Renfield:” Give the entire Dracula/Renfield/vampire thing a break. A long, long break. Give it all a rest. A needed rest. Just like with superhero, comic book, “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” Marvel, DC, Frankenstein, Mafia, sequel, prequel and franchise movies: Give it a rest, already.

Lest anyone think this is some idle, cynical, cranky request—which it isn’t—let’s review, shall we, a brief history of Dracula/Renfield-related movies that have been released from just the past twenty-three years: “Dracula 2000,” 2000; “Dracula,” 2002; “Dracula II: Ascension” 2003; “Van Helsing,” movie, 2004; “The Batman vs. Dracula,” 2005; “Dracula,” television series, 2005; “Dracula III: Legacy,” 2005; “Dracula,” television adaptation, 2006; “Young Dracula,” television series, 2006-2014; “Dracula Reborn,” 2012; “Dracula 3D,” 2012; “Dracula 2012,” 2013; “Dracula,” television series, 2013; “Dracula: The Dark Prince,” 2013; “Dracula Untold,” 2014; “Penny Dreadful,” television series, 2014-2016; “Monster Family,” 2017; “Van Helsing,” television series, 2019; “Dracula,” television series, 2020; and “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” 2013.

Talk about the curse of the undead. Perhaps this seemingly unholy inability to kill off Dracula-related film and television projects is, in the end, the scariest Dracula tale of them all.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.