In 2017 Universal debuted their ambitious plans for a series of reboots of their popular 1930s and 1940s horror films. Dubbed the Universal “Dark Universe,” it yielded only two features — 2017’s “The Mummy” with Tom Cruise and 2020’s “The Invisible Man” starring Elisabeth Moss — before being scrapped. And while director Chris McKay’s (“The Tomorrow War”) “Renfield” isn’t directly a Dark Universe project it gives audiences hope that maybe the concept might yield its own reanimation.
“Renfield” is the story of Robert Montagu Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the codependent familiar of the best known vampire in the world, Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage). Renfield spends his days attending a support group for adults in toxic relationships, in the hopes that he can finally break free of Dracula, once and for all. But when Renfield gets caught in the middle of a war between a prominent New Orleans crime family and beat cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) it could lead to Dracula finally find a way to achieve world domination.
“Renfield” is at its best when its focused on the eponymous character and bad Drac problem. Cage and Hoult recreate scenes from Bela Lugosi’s 1931 feature with such a striking attention to detail you’d believe they, Hoult especially, had been in the film all along. In the modern world, Hoult never goes for an imitation of original Renfield actor Dwight Frye so eschews the original character’s madness for more sadness and desperation. He’s a victim of abuse with no idea who to turn to, and that’s outside the fact that he’s lived for hundreds of years by providing victims for a literal vampire.
Hoult’s charm and sweetness is tempered by Cage’s showy, maniacal performance as Dracula and it’s frustrating that there aren’t more scenes where the two just play off each other. One moment, where Dracula sees Renfield’s new humble abode, is especially fun as the two go for broke; Hoult cowers in a corner and tries to employ therapeutic techniques Cage’s character berates. In their interactions together the script delves into the parasitic elements of their relationship, as well as deconstructing elements of the original film and Bram Stoker’s novel.
The problem is the Renfield/Dracula relationship is placed alongside Awkwafina’s cop character and her battle to rid New Orleans of the Lobo criminal family, headed up by a deliciously villainous Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her amateur son, Teddy (Ben Schwartz). It’s easy to see why this plot isn’t enough to sustain its own movie, but why place it in a horror comedy so specific? Really, it seems to only fit because, forsaking the reasoning in Stoker’s book, when Renfield eats bugs (his version of spinach, apparently) he becomes super-strong and has the ability to do everything from chop someone’s arms off with a serving platter to ripping off an entire face with just his bare hands.
In these moments, Hoult and Awkwafina have a decent buddy chemistry, but it’s unremarkable in the grand scheme of things, and every time Cage shows up you just wish the movie eschewed Awkwafina’s wisecracks for more of the horror hijinks. That being said, the fight choreography is remarkable, particularly an extended sequence in an apartment complex. The film uses its R-rating to a healthy advantage, which some shockingly inventive kills, though a lot of the impact is undone by obvious CGI blood that gets more noticeable the more it’s utilized (which is a lot in this movie).
Aghdashaloo and Schwartz are also fun to watch, but would see more suited to a “Kick-Ass” movie than here. In fact, the plotline feels very much like a throwaway moment from that film series more than anything else. It would have been better to integrate Aghdashaloo into the horror mythos in some way, especially since her and Cage’s Dracula have a fairly intense chemistry in the one scene they share together.
But every time things start to drag — the movie is barely 90 minutes so thankfully things move quickly — the comedy gets a shot in the arm from Renfield’s visit to his support group, led by the encouraging Mark (Brandon Scott Jones, “Isn’t It Romantic”). The various characters associated with the group all have their own versions of Dracula, albeit their blood sucking is metaphorical, and their stories delight. Had “Renfield,” as a film, continued what it started with Renfield, the character, being interested in avenging his new-found friends it might have been stronger.
“Renfield” is a great example of how Universal could resurrect its Dark Universe. Take tangential characters or questions audiences have wondered about and find a way to actually explore them. Hoult and Cage do so well in the roles and the script does its best to find a new way into modernizing Stoker’s incomparable novel. These are the children of the night worth following!