When is a Dracula movie not a Dracula movie? When it finds itself somehow trapped inside an absolutely dismal cop comedy. This is the strange fate thrust upon the latest cinematic incarnation of the vampire Count, where the tasty premise of Nicolas Cage going wild as the Prince of Darkness is squandered in just about the most embarrassing and least intuitive way one could possibly muster up. 2023’s blockbuster slate has thus far brought us some pretty decent stuff, from the surprisingly good Dungeons and Dragons to the masterful John Wick 4, as well as some stinkers like Shazam 2 and Ant-Man 3, but in Renfield we have the first truly unmitigated disaster.
As the title might suggest, Dracula himself doesn’t get top billing here – instead that honour goes to his bug-chomping familiar Robert Renfield (Nicholas Hoult). After a century (give or take) of service to his blood-drinking master, Renfield is feeling dissatisfied, and as the servant and his master move to present day New Orleans, he starts to attempt to strike out on his own. As the trailers have shown, Renfield initially – after a nice prologue that inserts Cage and Hoult into the 1931 Dracula – plays as a twisted workplace comedy, Renfield the long-suffering assistant of the ultimate bad boss.
What you might not anticipate, though, is just how little actual screentime this relationship is given. Yes, Dracula’s torment informs most of Renfield’s actions, but Cage (whose performance is the only thing I derived even a little bit of joy out of in this movie) is hardly in the damn thing. Instead we more often follow New Orleans police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) and her quest to take down the city’s most brutal crime family, a plot that only intersects with anything vampiric a handful of times, and never satisfyingly.
It’s a baffling waste of Cage, and an excruciatingly boring and badly written plot in its own right – Ryan Ridley’s script is full of the sort of awful ‘gags’ of the worst modern blockbusters, a lot of lines delivered with the cadence of a joke without remembering to actually be funny. Awkwafina never convinces as this apparently haunted cop whilst her trademark sense of humour is dulled down. When she eventually runs into, and starts falling for, Renfield, she and Hoult create a sort of brutal chemistry vacuum, every conversation they share becoming an interminable slog. Hoult, for his part, is also terrible; he’s generally one of the most electrifying actors of his generation, but here his attempts at playing Renfield’s exhaustion and fear instead come off as a bored disinterest.
To guide a cast like this into performances like these is a real failure of direction from helmer Chris McKay, a failure that extends to a lot of the basic stuff. Both the blocking and moment-to-moment editing a shoddy here, whilst the gory action scenes (see, Renfield gets superpowers from the bugs he eats) are both relentless and ineffectual. With John Wick 4 still pretty fresh in the memory, fights as dull and choppily put together as this feel completely pointless, a box-ticking obligation for a film that is, somehow, already struggling to wring 90 minutes out of its Nicolas-Cage-as-Dracula elevator pitch.
In the right circumstances (more screentime, playing the horror straighter etc), I have no doubt that Cage could turn in an all-timer monster movie performance, but Renfield simply has no idea how to use its biggest gun. Even the other occasional beginnings of decent ideas, like the mob taking the fight to Dracula without realising the sort of power they’re up against, could form the basis of something genuinely thrilling. Yet, Renfield never meets an opportunity it can’t waste, wrapping its best ideas in a mediocre vampire comedy, and then wrapping *that* in an entirely woeful cop movie, a gruesome Turducken of unimaginative blockbuster tropes.