In a not-so-distant time, when audiences heard the name “Nicolas Cage,” there was an automatic presumption of a performer who’s either doing something huge in the scene as a larger-than-life character or the project as a whole as being of lesser construction. The truth is often somewhere in the middle where Cage, an actor with a career as extensive as his cinema history knowledge, has played those roles, but not only those roles in those kinds of films. With Mandy (2018), audiences were reminded what it looks like when Cage is given a part within a story that smartly channels his energy, resulting in a devastating tale. With Pig (2021), audiences were reminded what Cage can do with a subdued role, delivering an uncanny and sobering performance that shakes all who see it. In last year’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022), we were reminded that Cage is a performer without ego, shedding (and in some cases shredding) it all to both exalt and lampoon himself. In his latest project to come home, director Chris McKay’s Renfield, we see Cage team up with another brilliant character actor, Nicholas Hoult, as the two enter the vampiric playground of Bram Stoker, and the two don’t just chew the scenery, they drain it of everything they can. The end result is a sometimes uneven horror/camp/comedy that only these two actors have the skills to navigate.
If you’re interested in learning about Renfield in a spoiler-free capacity, head over to EoM Senior Film Critic Hunter Heilman’s theatrical release review. Moving forward, we’re going to bite hard into the home release.
When lawyer R.M. Renfield (Hoult) came to meet with reclusive and wealthy Count Dracula (Cage) all those years ago, all he wanted to do was get a piece of Dracula’s rumored riches in order to offer a better life for himself and his family. Instead, he became the 24/7/365 valet to the master of the undead, subject to verbal torture and centuries of physical abuse as he does his master’s bidding during the day in order to satisfy Dracula’s appetite’s at night. In present day, however, Renfield starts to reconsider this toxic working relationship when stalking a meal for Dracula leads him to accidentally attend a meeting for those trying to get out from under the boot heel of their own narcissists (except his now intends to shoot for world domination). But right when he thinks he can separate himself from the all-powerful bloodsucker, Renfield’s accidental involvement in a war between a local crime family and New Orleans PD leads to a larger threat that only Renfield may have the ability to stop, if he can just say no to his boss.
I’ll never forget the glares I received in undergrad when I had the gumption to suggest that the Dracula in Bram Stoker’s story is actually the real victim of the story. The reader never gets his perspective on things, just lines of dialogue as recalled by various characters of the novel, switching throughout to offer a different view of things. The trick then is that we only get the perception of the humans who fear Dracula and not the being who is, for the most part, just trying to survive and propagate his species. As written by Robert Kirkman (Invincible/The Walking Dead) and Ryan Ridley (Invincible), McKay’s Renfield gets rid of any kind of potential grey by making this Dracula an absolute vicious killer with no remorse, only hunger. This creates an opportunity for the film as a whole to lean into the trappings of Universal Picture’s horror legacy, but make it modern camp. Oddly, this more often than not translates to an unevenness that makes the film enjoyable due to its silliness, but something that’s more like an appetizer, an aperitif, to get someone ready for either real camp or real horror. Let’s be clear. I consider Army of Darkness (1992) to be something similar (just better balanced) and see nothing wrong with a film straddling the line and, perhaps, serving as an opportunity for filmgoers to wrap this and say, “what else is there?” before going off into the wild world of horror. The issue is that what works most about Renfield is the cast chemistry, together and individually within their roles, rather than the film as a whole.
Let’s break this down a bit for clarity.
If you haven’t seen Massive Talent, there’s a bonus feature there that sort of delves into Cage’s cinema knowledge and you’ll find more proof of that within the bonus features here. His awareness is encyclopedic, making his take on Dracula right in line with the classic Universal version of Dracula with a modern spin. Dracula is already a menacing figure by reputation, but then you place an actor in the role who makes a meal of being unbalanced and there’s a threat that’s truly unpredictable. By contrast, we get Shohreh Aghdashloo’s (Star Trek Beyond) Bellafrancesca Lobo, the calm and collected crime family leader who, essentially, owns New Orleans by the time Renfield starts his journey of self-rehabilitation. Aghdashloo’s performance is far more understated and regal than Cage’s, demonstrating their capability well before the two ever share the screen or before the script establishes the convergence between the two leaders. Her character, more than anyone else’s, is the least developed and yet, thanks to Aghdashloo, we quickly come to understand she’s not one to be trifled with. On the flip side, you have Hoult, a phenomenal character actor (Mad Max: Fury Road/The Favourite), as the reticent man servant and Ben Schwartz (The After Party) as Tedward Lobo, Bellafrancesca’s eager but incompetent son. These two represent one with gifts who believes himself weaker than he is, unable to stand up and face life alone (Renfield), and another who believes himself stronger than he is, far more comfortable residing within the protection of his overseer (Tedward). Unfortunately, Schwartz’s Tedward isn’t given the time to really establish himself as a mirror and is, instead, used primarily to tell jokes, most of which don’t land due to their repetition. Hoult is given far more to work with, as well as time, in order to develop the character from boot heel to independent operator, but there’s something strange about the performance where it feels like an odd compilation of budding hero Hank/Beast in X-Men: First Class (2011) and zombie R in Warm Bodies (2013). Standing alone among the crew is Awkwafina (Ocean’s Eight/The Bad Guys) as NOPD officer Rebecca Quincy, someone on the hunt for the Lobo crew for killing her father and who is saved by Renfield when Tedward attempts to kill her in public. The character is different for the comedian as Awkwafina often gets roped into playing the same fast-talking, quippy role, but Rebecca has more courage and self-worth than all the rest of the characters, highlighting who Renfield could be and providing the way for the two stories to converge properly. Within this context, these characters are mostly interesting and engaging, but what swirls around them is often less so.
These are going to seem like quibbles when dealing with a film centered on Dracula and his valet, but a certain amount of logic goes out the window, the questioning of which brings down the framework. Questions like “The film is incredible gory and makes great use of practical effects, but then why is there no actual blood spatter on Renfield and Rebecca when someone loses a limb right in front of them?” Or, “how does Renfield afford rent for his own place when he (a) has no job and (b) has already expressed that Dracula has low-to-no funds?” Or, it’s great that the film outright expresses the existence of heaven and hell via a joke made by newly-resurrected therapy meeting group leader Mark (Brandon Scott Jones), except Rebecca’s sister Kate (Camille Chen) doesn’t seem to have any memory whatsoever about having experienced the same. The film spends a lot of time explaining some things, either outright or via inference, so that the things it doesn’t explain or explore feel like mistakes no one caught in continuity, creating a frustrating feeling that just builds the further one goes into the film. You’re still able to have fun, but it’s the kind where one starts to wonder if they’d care if they even finished. That’s a major bummer when one should be having an otherwise solid time.
A fantastic surprise, though, is that the home release for Renfield, dubbed the “Dracula Sucks Edition,” is stacked with bonus features. Oddly, there’s no gag reel, but there is a feature-length commentary track with Producer Samantha Nisenboim (The Tomorrow War), Ridley, and members of the crew, six different featurettes totaling more than 35 minutes, eight deleted/extended scenes that offer 18-minutes’ worth of entertainment, and three minutes of alternate takes. The joy here is in how these bonus features allow audiences to pull back the curtain to learn about how all the chaos was made, demonstrating the thoughtfulness that we see on screen with the film’s many visual references and homages, the craft of making Dracula creepy as hell in his fire-damaged form, the deranged practical effects, and all the ways Renfield never loses its Stoker roots. If nothing else, these cement the notion that a pairing of this and Violent Night (2022) would make for some fun (and bloody) merriment.
Let’s be real here, Renfield is intended as a horror comedy centered on the perspective Dracula’s depressed valet in the modern era. It’s not trying to reinvent the genre or tell a provocative tale (though it has its moments). Renfield luxuriates in being ridiculous, from the decadent costume design for Dracula to the overflow of digital blood to the larger-than-life characters. So asking audiences to tie it to reality is a little like asking Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) to stop focusing on his actor’s feet; it’s best just to accept it as what it is and move on. Viewed this way, Renfield succeeds in being the kind of film you can relax with, never worrying about aftertaste or deeper exploration. It just exists. That’s perfectly fine and, as mentioned above, this may just be the door to greater dark delights for audiences turned on by macabre adventure they’ve just wrapped.
Renfield Special Features:
- Feature Commentary with Producer Samantha Nisenboim, Screenwriter Ryan Ridley, and Crew (1:33:35)
- Dracula UnCaged – Go inside the mind of a vampire as Dracula himself, Nicolas Cage, reveals the secrets behind turning a classic character into a memorable monster. (4:50)
- Monsters & Men: Behind the Scenes of Renfield – An in-depth look at Renfield’s cast, sets, costumes and more as the actors and filmmakers reveal how they modernized a famous terror tale with trailblazing comedy and over-the-top action. (12:37)
- Stages of Rejuvenation – See how special makeup effects bring the undead to life throughout the four stages of Dracula’s incredible transformation. (6:17)
- Flesh & Blood – Exploding heads. Peeling faces. Severed limbs. They’re all part of the macabre movie magic that fuels Renfield with inventive action and hilarious horror. (5:25)
- Fighting Dirty – Stunt coordinator Christopher Brewster leads a look at the training, choreography, and careful execution that goes into the film’s spectacular stunts and fight scenes. (6:14)
- The Making of a Deleted Scene: Renfield’s Dance! – Nicholas Hoult and choreographer Kathryn Burns pull back the curtain on constructing an elaborate musical number for a fantasy dance sequence. (3:35)
- Eight (8) Hilarious Deleted and Extended Scenes (18:13)
- Alternate Takes (3:20)
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital June 6th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Universal Pictures Renfield webpage.