Movie Curiosities: Renfield
Renfield comes to us from director Chris McKay, better known as half of the writing/directing/producing duo that brought us The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street (2012) and its sequel, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and The Lego Batman Movie. Though I notice his partner Phil Lord is nowhere to be seen, which is interesting and potentially telling.
(CORRECTION: On closer inspection, Chris McKay was only involved as a director on The Lego Batman Movie. All the rest was Christopher Miller.)
The script comes to us from Ryan Ridley, who came up as a television writer under Dan Harmon by way of “Community” and “Rick and Morty”. We’ve also got a story credit from Robert Kirkman, of all people. Yes, the same Robert Kirkman responsible for developing the television adaptation of “The Walking Dead” came up with the concept for this horror action comedy.
The film was built as a direct sequel to the classic 1931 Bela Lugosi adaptation of “Dracula”, complete with Nicolas Fucking Cage and Nicholas Hoult digitally swapped into clips from the original film as the respective characters of Count Dracula and Robert Montague Renfield. Long story short, Renfield is Dracula’s familiar, which means that while Dracula derives his superhuman abilities from devouring human blood, Renfield can tap into a fraction of those same powers by ingesting live insects. Dracula has also kept Renfield alive and young through his own ichor, which has powerful regenerative properties. In return, Renfield is effectively Dracula’s slave, helping to procure Dracula with food and lodging and anything else the Dark Lord needs, most especially in the daylight hours.
The film was made and sold on the notion of reinventing Dracula as a pathological narcissist, and his dynamic with Renfield as a harmfully toxic relationship. This is brilliant on multiple levels.
Yes, it helps that Nicolas Fucking Cage playing Dracula as a textbook narcissist is every bit as comically horrifying as it sounds. If anything, this portrayal’s manipulative nature adds a whole new layer to Dracula’s established talent for enthralling his victims and minions. And Dracula was always a monster who ate people without remorse on his way to plans for world domination, but making him hopelessly self-absorbed on top of that adds a whole new layer of motivation. I know Dracula is supposed to be evil incarnate, that’s his whole deal, but the narcissistic angle makes him evil on a personal level in a frankly ingenious way.
Likewise, Nicholas Hoult perfectly rides the line between comedy and horror with his performance. It’s deeply sympathetic to see his portrayal of Renfield slowly come to realize how much Dracula needs him more than he really needs Dracula, then take steps to assert his independence and find out who he really is, only to revert to his cowardly slavish self once Drac starts back up with his well-practiced routine of getting Renfield back in line. It’s a moving and heartfelt portrayal of how recovery isn’t always a straight line, and Hoult does an elegant job of portraying a deeply uplifting message.
It helps a great deal that the filmmakers never lose sight of all the awful shit that Renfield has done. Renfield has committed genuine atrocities in servitude of Dracula, to say nothing of how his estranged wife and daughter are long since dead by now. The film doesn’t offer any answers for how Renfield could possibly atone for his time as Dracula’s familiar, but this isn’t exactly a question with easy answers. Anyone in Renfield’s position would likely spend the rest of his life trying to atone. But right now, the important thing is that at least Renfield is willing and able to accept his faults and atone for them — that’s what separates him from the monster he serves.
The film is loaded with funny moments, though I’m sorry to say that a few of the funnier lines from the trailers got cut. (They chickened out of that jab at the Catholic Church, alas.) The action scenes are over-the-top fun, loaded with impressive gore effects and gut-churning sight gags, though the violent was sadly inconsistent. A guy can get his face ripped off and he dies instantly, but another guy gets stabbed in the neck with a freaking table fork and he just shrugs it off. Make that make sense.
Basically put, everything they showed in the trailers is great fun. It’s everything they DIDN’T show in the trailers where we start running into problems.
Long story short, Renfield gets the bright idea of sitting in on support meetings for people in toxic co-dependent relationships — not for his benefit, but for pretty much everyone else’s. The plan is that he hears all these sob stories, takes out the toxic assholes making everyone else miserable, and brings them home for Dracula to feed on. In theory, it’s not a bad idea. In practice, it goes wrong in every possible way.
For one thing, said toxic assholes are typically impure criminals hopped up on drugs, while Dracula insists on only the most pure of hearts. More importantly (to make ANOTHER long story short), Renfield’s antics put him directly in the crosshairs of a crime family that apparently owns the entire godforsaken city of New Orleans.
Case in point: Tedward “Teddy” Lobo, the coked-up son of criminal empress Bellafrancesca Lobo (respectively played by Ben Schwartz and Shoreh Aghdashloo). Teddy gets arrested while fleeing from a car crash, literally throwing bricks of cocaine at the cops while he’s running, and he gets away without consequence. Teddy openly confesses to crimes while he’s sitting in an EMPTY police interrogation room, and he gets away without consequence. A bit later on, Teddy literally holds a gun directly to the head of a uniformed police officer, in full public view of at least two dozen witnesses, and he gets away without consequence.
Then comes the point when the Lobo family abducts an FBI agent. Bad enough that every last cop (except one, more on her in a minute) in the city of New Orleans is apparently on the Lobo family payroll. Bad enough that we have uniformed cops and plainclothes gangsters working together to conduct a raid on an apartment complex in broad daylight. But then they kidnap a fucking federal agent with no blowback whatsoever! I get that corrupt law enforcement is a well-established trope, but this is outrageously implausible.
To be clear, I get what the filmmakers were going for with all of this. Bringing in a mob boss who could help Dracula with his plans for world domination? Sounds great. Teddy as a character to serve as a dark reflection of Renfield, especially given Teddy’s relationship with his domineering mother? Terrific. Then we’ve got Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), the one upstanding cop in all of New Orleans, working through a romance arc with Renfield as she sets an example of courage and he helps her take down the Lobo crime family. That all makes perfect sense.
The problem we keep running into is that this whole “cops and mobsters” is comically heightened to the point of hopeless absurdity. I get that this is a comedy, but the whole concept of Dracula can only work if he’s a supernatural being in a mundane world. More to the point, the film is trying to comment on a deeply heartfelt topic that affects real people in palpable ways. It’s a message about asserting independence from unhealthy domineering relationships, told by way of a laughably implausible setting populated by wildly illogical characters.
I defer to the wisdom of George Carlin, who once observed that every joke needs one thing blown way out of proportion. Dracula should’ve been the one thing blown out of proportion, that’s the only way this movie could’ve worked. Instead, Renfield is the only recognizably human character and it’s everyone else who’s blown way out of proportion.
I’m sorry to say that Renfield’s love interest is no exception. It’s not like Awkwafina can’t play nuanced and deeply sympathetic characters when she’s called upon to do so (seriously, watch The Farewell), but that’s not her comic persona. And because this film was made as a comedy, we’re stuck with loud and brash Awkwafina, who has no chemistry whatsoever with Hoult. And it’s not like the actors aren’t trying to sell it.
Renfield has a huge tone problem. I get that the filmmakers wanted to make this a horror comedy, but they didn’t know how or where to exaggerate the blood or jokes for maximum impact. All the pieces are here, they should all fit seamlessly together in theory, but I can only assume Chris McKay is worthless, because the direction is pitifully misguided.
It’s a fun movie with a deeply empowering message, but I have a hard time recommending this one when all the best parts of it were in the trailers. Hell, the trailers had some neat moments that didn’t even make the final cut. The performances from Cage and Hoult are enough to make this a home video recommendation at the very least, but that’s as high as I’m willing to go for this one.
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