Nicolas Cage's Dracula horror-comedy doesn't suck, but it'll make you wish it spent more time with Nicolas Cage as Dracula.
May 24, 2023
It's a bloody glorious setup: Nicolas Cage, actor of a million unmissable facial expressions, star of almost every movie he's asked to be in (or so it can seem) and wannabe bloodsucker in 1988's must-be-seen-to-be-believed Vampire's Kiss, playing the dark one, the lord of death, the one and only Dracula. In Renfield, that stellar idea makes for frequently bloody viewing — cartoonishly, befitting an OTT horror-comedy with Nicolas Cage as Dracula. And the pièce de résistance that is Cage getting his fangs out as the Bram Stoker-created character, who was inspired by the IRL 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad the Impaler? It is indeed glorious. The Transylvanian is the latest part he was born for, after stepping into his own shoes in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, getting revenge over a pet pig in Pig, milking alpacas in Color Out of Space and screaming while dousing himself in vodka in Mandy (and, well, most things on his four-decade resume).
Some movies have learned a simple truth, however: that putting Nicolas Cage in front of a camera and letting him unleash whatever version of Cage the film needs isn't always enough. That disappointment is usually on everything but Cage (see: his entrancing work in the otherwise average-if-lucky Willy's Wonderland, where he wordlessly battled demonic animatronics and made viewers wish he was around in the silent era), but Renfield has pre-emptively staked that lesson through its own heart. As the title makes plain, Cage's Dracula isn't the lead character. Instead, the long-suffering, insect-eating servant played by the feature's other welcome Nic, The Great's Nicholas Hoult, is in the sunlight. Accordingly, The Lego Batman Movie and Robot Chicken director Chris McKay doesn't even try to get his feature by on the Cageness of it all alone. That's a miscalculation. In fact, it's up there with the flick's Robert Montague Renfield pledging allegiance to the vampire that started all vampire obsessions. Renfield is at full power when Cage is front and centre, and feels like its blood is slowly being drained when he's out of the frame.
Rocking lush red velvet threads and a devilish stare, Cage couldn't be better as Dracula, proving both Renfield's instant drawcard and its reason to keep watching. He gives the script's ultimate toxic boss angle hilarious bite, too, because that's the storyline. After several lifetimes of doing the undead master's bidding, Renfield realises that finding people for the Count to sink his chompers into, cleaning up the mess afterwards — there's always a mess — and generally dealing with his chaos isn't fun, fulfilling or healthy. Getting invincibility and immortality by eating bugs doesn't bother him, but the demands that go with it do. The script from Ryan Ridley (Rick and Morty, Community) based on a story by Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Invincible) has Renfield come to that epiphany by attending a New Orleans support group for codependent relationships, then deciding to be his own person again. If only escaping Dracula was that easy, as over a century of movies — and Stoker's OG text — have established.
There's a coming-of-age slant to Renfield's quest to work out who he is if he leaves the darkness behind, chooses life and matures into a post-offsider existence (while coming-alive-again isn't a term, that's what it is as well). There's also a hefty shadow cast by What We Do in the Shadows given that unhappy vampire familiars are a part of both Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement's side-splitting movie and the also-ace American TV spinoff. But McKay and company don't trust that there's enough legs in the Nic-and-Nic double act, either, or that putting them in Shadows-meets-Dracula territory gets the blood pumping. Their solution: also making Renfield about NOPD traffic cop Rebecca (Awkwafina, The Little Mermaid) and the mob family she's trying to take down. Her vengeance-fuelled feud hones in on the obnoxious Tedward Lobo (Ben Schwartz, in Parks and Recreation's Jean-Ralphio mode if he was a gangster) — and, of course, Renfield and Drac get in the middle.
He may be fresh off a big-screen stint in The Menu, but Hoult was in somewhat similar territory a decade ago in zom-rom-com Warm Bodies. Even when he's tasked with delivering explanatory narration like this is Zombieland, being the likeably dreamy lead in a light-hearted twist on a horror-genre staple suits him, although not as much as irreverent takes on royal history as in The Great and The Favourite. Still, in Renfield he's at his best when he's bouncing off Cage. The entire cast is, including Schwartz, Shohreh Aghdashloo (Mrs Davis) as Teddy's all-controlling crime matriarch mum and Brandon Scott Jones (The Other Two) as Renfield's 12-step-group's leader. Cage is just having that much of a blast. While he knows he's in a comedy, he also blends camp and menace in an iteration of Drac that's gleefully happy being fiendish. As the old cliche goes, he could read the phone book in the cape and prove mesmerising.
No one recites from 20th-century lists of landline numbers. Renfield spouts wisdom from a self-help book for a scene instead, and it's a nice gag. That moment stands out because it's a rare — Renfield doesn't ever suck, but it's nowhere near as funny as a Cage-starring Dracula comedy should easily be. Slickly shot and content with being amiable, it isn't anything as much as it should be, whether that's an odd-couple flick, a viscera-splashing horror parody, a crime caper, a superhero affair (cue Renfield's supernatural fighting skills) or, in a plot thread flirted with but never committed to, a romance. In not wanting to tie its fortunes to the entire reason that anyone is buying a ticket, this addition to Dracula's lengthy on-screen resume doesn't want to be any one thing, and it shows glaringly.
Count Dracula is the Guinness World Records-confirmed most-portrayed literary character, giving Cage plenty of past competition — Max Schrek (Nosferatu), Christopher Lee (the Hammer flicks), Udo Kier (Blood for Dracula), Klaus Kinski (Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre), Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Richard Roxburgh (Van Helsing), Adam Sandler (the Hotel Transylvania movies), Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) and Claes Bang (TV miniseries Dracula) all included. It might be daunted about its own focus, but Renfield surprisingly isn't daunted by that cinema and television history, in one of its other marvellous but oh-so-brief touches. Early on, McKay inserts Cage and Hoult into Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula. Their faces replace Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye's, and it's a wonder. Leaning into Cage as Dracula far heartier than Renfield does would be glorious, and what Renfield leaves viewers wanting — but it's teasing a Universal Classic Monsters-style effort with Cage baring his teeth that sparks all the yearning.
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