In a career marked and mired by hundreds of roles, genres and assertions of varying quality, Nicolas Cage has done nearly everything. He checked off western and Dracula in one year, which follows on from self-parody and a video game knock-off. Cage may have showcased his talents for vampirism before but not as the main man himself. Joining the ranks of Christopher Lee, Leslie Nielson and Bela Lugosi, Cage is given the chance to throw himself into a role which benefits his mannerisms. Playing well with the form and in brief moments of spry horror charms, Chris McKay struggles through and directs Renfield with all the overblown expectations of a Cage feature. Still, his displays of physical horror and his casting choices make for the best bits, as few and far between they may be.
At least leading man Nicolas Hoult, the bug-eating narrator tying Dracula to Renfield with breakneck speed and little care for the detail, is fine enough. Renfield struggles to pace itself. Assuming viewers have not read or experienced Dracula before is all well and good but dishing out information like a buckshot to the brain is a bold and weak-hearted way to go. Gather up what you can and stay the course. Within two minutes, the freeze-frame, record-scratch, “oh did you know,” segmenting takes some awful turns. They are then forgotten for conventional shot-reverse-shot, sprinkle in some wide angles for good measure to establish some vaguely recognisable actor. Hammy supporting performances from those who control and fear Dracula with a dull cop drama are inevitable.
Botched and embarrassingly hammy moments are thrown together far too often. Empty yet generally practical backstories for Awkwafina’s Rebecca Quincy and the drug lord Tedward Lobo (Ben Schwartz) scream barebones writing, done for the sake of progressing from set piece to set piece. Awkward those moments may be, they are expected. With Hoult’s narration sounding more and more like a Stewie Griffin impression, the real guts come from trying to tie a romantic side story into all of this. Of course it is messy, but Renfield has no choice. Gruesome practical detail and a hammy Cage performance showcase a bloodied Dracula which works more because he is caked in makeup and unrecognisable. Notes of self-belief come through and are crushed by pitch changes to Cage’s voice as he reminds Renfield of protective duty. We are more than our duties, but Renfield is no more than the sum of its bafflingly weak parts.
Record scratch fight scenes are quick enough to pad the moments average viewers may lose focus or switch to their phones. For all the gory glory McKay is competent in showcasing, the charms of Renfield run dry quickly. Conventional anti-hero expectations are ever-so-briefly flirted with and traded in before they are given time to bubble up. Instead, Cage, who sounds like Austin Powers as he announces Dracula is a God, interjects at all the wrong times. Hoult and Cage have that bitter couple chemistry, but so do Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers. They do not need the supernatural to keep them in check, just a Dustin Hoffman supporting role in later works. Now, Renfield would not improve with Hoffman’s appearance as a hapless father, but it would certainly make for some more interesting material than the pieces Schwartz and Awkwafina find themselves meddling with. Nods to Bram Stoker are good enough for those who pick them out.