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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

"Renfield" has codependency issues with familiarity

“Renfield,” the movie, wants love and so does Renfield himself. In the movie, Renfield joins a group therapy session designed to help people rid themselves of codependency and abusive relationships, to empower those who need rescuing. This could be a funny situation for Dracula’s right-hand man and long-suffering servant over the course of a century or so. No longer content to do the master’s bidding, what if Renfield felt he was being taken advantage of, that he had no agency and that there should be more to his existence than to just lay traps for innocent young victims? If it didn’t already sound like an episode of “What We Do In the Shadows,” there would be so much potential for a fun little horror-comedy with a wholly original take on Bram Stoker’s immortal tale. That is actually where “Renfield” starts and with Nicholas Hoult as the titular character and Nicolas Cage as the Dark One, the film sets off on the right foot.

Unfortunately, despite some clever and funny moments, “Renfield” (the movie) is also in need of rescuing. The concept loses its course so often that everything eventually devolves into action scenes designed to keep an adrenaline rush going in case you need an extra jolt after watching the far superior “John Wick: Chapter 4,” only with gallons more blood and carnage. It also builds to a climax better suited to the most average of Marvel or DC movies. It’s a movie that wants to be remembered as a ballsy, blood-splattered risk-taker with a performance by Cage that will add to his meme-like iconography. Instead, everything about it feels so ordinary and routine that there’s really no need to get excited since we’ll probably get another film just like this at some point within the next year and it, too, will have the same ambitions.

That is not to suggest the movie is completely charmless. “Renfield” works best when the characters interact one to one with each other. Hoult’s scenes with Cage remind us why Cage had often been so enjoyable back in his heyday when he was granted complete control over his creations, inventing some wildly entertaining choices with his voice, his eyes and his overall commitment. He seems to be channeling into that lifeforce here when he’s allowed to just talk to his servant through layers of make-up. One would hope the casting here was inspired by the also-far-superior “Vampire’s Kiss,” but Cage has become too obvious and ubiquitous of a cult figure among film enthusiasts over the years that stuff like this feels like a marketing gimmick as much as a piece of homage casting.

Hoult is also a smart choice to lead the film, although seeing him in pale-skin make-up, I was quickly reminded that he delved into this sort of thing before with 2013’s zombie love story “Warm Bodies,” in which he played a zombie who falls in love with a mortal woman. Here, Hoult seems to be doing his best Hugh Grant imitation, itself a clever little gimmick and loving nod toward his “About A Boy” co-star from 2002. His relationship with Dracula, sadly, never moves beyond the single dimension established early on and we root for Renfield not to get out from under Dracula’s clutches, but to just be in a scene that has nothing to do with Dracula or being Renfield. Hoult’s performance is too good for this.

There is also the problem of the forced love interest, played by Awkwafina, who plays one of the few cops in New Orleans who hasn’t been corrupted by the Lobos, the crime lord and her son (Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ben Schwartz, respectively) and all their henchmen and women. Awkwafina, ever one of the most reliable actors working today and who can help liven up some mediocre material when it needs it, looks trapped here. She does what she can in bringing her trademark energy and wit to the proceedings, but she is hampered by a tired subplot involving the death of her father at the hands of the Lobo family.

A lot has been crammed into 93 minutes and, in spite of some gags, performances and one-liners that earn a chuckle or two, it all starts to feel like a lot of studio meddling into something that was once an inspired idea. Director Chris McKay falls victim to the stylistic demand that action scenes must pause for slo-mo, an overused gimmick I have yet to be impressed with, a few exceptions notwithstanding. In looking at the images over the closing credits, it looks as though a music number had been choreographed and filmed. Perhaps they cut it for time? I don't know if that would’ve made it a better movie, but I do know that I’ve seen musical numbers in bloody horror movies before. I also know I’ve seen splatter and gore in this capacity before. I’ve seen Cage play a vampire before and I’ve seen Hoult play the undead before. You probably recall reading a paragraph like this a few short moments ago. I hope I don’t have to write it again in the future, but if they’re looking to start a franchise of some sort here, I may never be rescued myself.

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