Director – Chris McKay – 2023 – US – Cert. 15 – 93m
Guided by American self-help industry ideas of escaping toxic relationships with narcissists, Dracula‘s servant Renfield wants out of his relationship with his master – out in UK cinemas on Friday, April 14th
Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has had enough of working for his boss, Count Dracula (Nic Cage) who gives him the ability to manifest great power from eating insects in exchange for his tending to Dracula’s every need, the main item on which list is a supply of fresh, virtuous humans on who to feast. As here portrayed, Renfield is an honourable Englishman who has changed the rules: he goes out and brings back a never ending supply of one sort or another of less than virtuous people for the Count. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really fit the bill.
Enter pampered gangster boy Tedward Lobo (Ben Schwartz) who, whilst trying to find the people who double-crossed him in a drugs deal, stumbles on the Prince of Darkness and, impressed, resolves to introduce the vampire to his ruthless crime boss mother Bellafrancesca Lobo (casting coup Shohreh Aghdashloo) to help him in his newly-formed goal of world domination.
Meanwhile, traffic cop Rebecca (Awkwafina), the only cop not on the take in the corrupt local precinct, otherwise bought to a man by the Lobos, is determined to get the evidence to put the crime family behind bars. Single-handedly taking on the gang, she runs into Renfield who more by accident than design fights and bests the gangsters alongside her. Her admiration for him as a local hero is offset by her department’s refusal to charge Tedward. Then she discovers that Renfield is involved in numerous missing persons cases, and isn’t as virtuous as she had initially assumed.
Renfield, meanwhile, avails himself of a local, church-based self-help group for individuals wishing to extricate themselves from toxic relationships with narcissists. He can’t bring himself to talk about his own problem, because the idea of Dracula would be simply too fantastical for them to accept. So he attends and listens, feeling relieved that other people too have issues similar to those he has. Until, one day his master shows up at the meeting, spotted by the hapless facilitator and invited in…
On a superficial level, this deftly navigates a path between humour and horror, which is no easy feat. That’s probably all the audience really want, and on that level, they’ll go away satisfied. The performances impress. It’s a frustrating film, though, because it seems to have all the elements in place for something very special only to effectively throw them all away on mundane material. Spectacular fight choreography and oodles of blood and gore intermittently fill the screen, but of an extremely silly variety where punched people explode into gallons of blood. This isn’t gore or action that captures the emotions, it’s just spectacle that doesn’t engage. (And it’s barely represented in the publicity stills.)
It’s like a gory version of Tom & Jerry. At its apex, arms ripped off one assailant become improvised projectiles to impale the torsos of two more, while a facial skin ripped off an attacker is reduced to the status of one additional, bloody gag. (Take a breath, stop for a second – and think about that.)
While there’s nothing wrong with either humour or humour mixed in with horror if the mix is right, you come out feeling that the film would have benefited considerably from more substance, or indeed if had actually been about anything more than a series of well-worn stereotypes, even if the proceedings here can be said to employ them with some considerable panache.
Renfield is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 14th.