The new horror comedy Renfield begins with a fantastic premise for a 5-minute sketch. After hearing a couple people in a self-help group share details of their toxic relationships, the titular character (played by Nicholas Hoult) opens up about how terribly his boss treats him. The support group leader (played by Brandon Scott Jones) asks Renfield what would happen if he put his needs above his boss’s, allowing Renfield to surmise that doing so “won’t allow [his boss] to grow to full power.” Dramatic irony starts to set in as we get the sense before the characters do that this isn’t a typical superior-subordinate situation, at which point Renfield’s boss crashes the meeting. Turns out, he’s Dracula (played, because of course, by Nicolas Cage) and Renfield is his familiar and personal assistant.

The problem with Renfield is simple: it doesn’t know how to meaningfully expand upon this premise. It would be fun to see how Dracula and Renfield interact, comically juxtaposing the Count’s unwavering bloodlust biddings with the typical requests an underling would fulfill at a traditional desk job. Perhaps Renfield could meet someone that he was supposed to bring to his vampiric master as bait and fall for them instead, allowing for the story to go in a more romantic direction. We get bits and pieces of those narrative inklings but the film is more interested in the bloody bits and pieces that come from a super-powered Renfield laying waste to groups of criminals. The movie takes the easy way out, centering its narrative around a trite cop-and-robbers storyline with Awkwafina playing a traffic cop looking to move up in the department and Ben Schwartz as a haywire drug dealer.

That’s not to say that Renfield doesn’t have its moments. Cage has turned the vampiric into comedic previously with 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss and he’s as good as you would expect him to be playing the most infamous bloodsucker of them all. In fact, the Vampire’s Kiss scene where Cage barks at his psychiatrist about an employee putting documents outside of alphabetical order wouldn’t even be out of place in this movie. Oddly enough, Cage’s performance here is the more restrained of the two but he still finds the right opportunities to chew (bite?) the scenery. There’s an expository scene early on that intentionally evokes the feel of the classic 1931 Dracula movie, Cage naturally channeling Bela Lugosi and all, and I wish we could have stayed in that setting longer.

Instead, director Chris McKay favors a seedy modern-day New Orleans environment similar to the one from Netflix’s Project Power starring Jamie Foxx. I wish McKay had taken more cues from Day Shift, another Jamie Foxx-starring Netflix movie that also involves vampires but delivers much more compelling action and comedy along the way. Like Cocaine Bear, another Universal Pictures movie from earlier this year, Renfield traffics in a CGI overkill of gleeful violence that isn’t as edgy as it thinks it is. When it comes to bad guy bloodletting, there’s a creative death here and there but most of the digital gore becomes a bore and a chore to sit through after a while. The bar for action on film keeps being raised by standard-bearers like the John Wick and Mission Impossible series and while Renfield may not be aiming that high, the action setpieces in the new Dungeons & Dragons movie were much better than what we get here.

In addition to Cage, the cast does what they can to make the most out of a script by Ryan Ridley that mainly plays like half a dozen half-coagulated ideas that never congeal. Hoult is a strong match for the beleaguered bossed-around sidekick, transmuting the haughty nature of his characters from The Favourite and The Menu into a subservience that inspires both pity and laughs. Awkwafina has been terrific in recent movies from The Farewell to Shang-Chi but she’s the wrong fit for this role, especially since a character avenging the death of her police captain father is a plot tangent that didn’t even need to be included. Of course it’s impossible to buy Schwartz as a mob enforcer named “Teddy Lobo” and McKay can’t decide if we’re supposed to take him seriously as a secondary antagonist. If you retain the same jumping-off point for a story and the presence of two Nics, Renfield has the makings of a killer comedy but as is, it feeds off all of the wrong action-comedy tropes.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Evil Dead Rise, a horror film starring Lily Sullivan and Alyssa Sutherland which follows two estranged sisters whose reunion is cut short by the rise of flesh-possessing demons, thrusting them into a primal battle for survival.
Also playing in theaters is The Covenant, an action thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim which takes place during the War in Afghanistan where a US Army Sergeant ventures to repay a life debt to his Afghan interpreter.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Ghosted, an action comedy starring Chris Evans and Ana de Armas about a man who falls head over heels for a woman before making the shocking discovery that she’s a secret agent.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup