‘Renfield’ Hilariously Bites Into Vampire Lore Before Turning Into an Action Fest

Some roles are so absurdly fun you wonder why the filmmakers don’t let them truly carry the movie. That’s a recurring issue with “Renfield,” a vampire romp that should realize viewers will remember little of it except for the manic presence of Nicolas Cage. Director Chris McKay had comedy gold in his hands. Dracula has been done to death, but here is a premise hilariously based on the idea of the anxiety caused by toxic relationships. Vampire stories tend to always have a “familiar,” or servant of whatever dark lord is featured. Actually having to work for a boss who can never die and exists for the sole purpose of draining the blood of innocent beings can exhaust the soul. Had “Renfield” stuck solely to that theme it would have been great. Instead it cops out by becoming another action fest.

The stressed slave this time is Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), who recalls how he first met Dracula (Cage) many, many years ago as a real estate agent. Now in the present and burdened by the vampire’s demands, Renfield is attending group therapy sessions. It’s hard to make everyone understand his experiences, considering the other attendees are in regular, toxic human arrangements. Dracula himself is currently recovering from getting scorched by the sun during a recent battle. He’s also irritated at the trashy offerings Renfield brings him for bloodsucking. He’d like something decent for a change, like a nun or busload of cheerleaders. Just as he’s about to secure such a meal, Renfield crosses paths with lunatic gangster Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), a member of the Lobo drug empire run by mom Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo). The incident also introduces Renfield to honest cop Rebecca (Awkwafina). Renfield’s stresses will only grow as he deals with an angry Dracula and vengeful mobsters.

For a lot of its first act, “Renfield” is genuinely funny in how it satirizes vampire clichés. Renfield’s first meeting of Dracula is presented with Cage and Hoult digitally inserted into the classic 1931 “Dracula,” respectively replacing Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye with the actors’ faces. Early scenes where Dracula berates his familiar like a bad employee, demanding “pure” victims to get back into shape, also work because Cage comes across like a perverse, spoiled CEO. In another excellent scene, he corners Renfield in his apartment and the terrified servant tries to argue back with tips from a guide on dealing with narcissists. It’s funny material with the two actors giving their all. Cage especially basks in the whole vampire aesthetic, snarling and wearing attire that seems taken from his days hanging out with the Cult and Marilyn Manson. There are fresh takes on other familiar vampire items. Renfield’s comfort food is bugs. He also makes sure to have plenty of stakes and crucifixes around to face Dracula, and at least a gallon of holy water.

We’ve seen this kind of material done much better in offerings such as Taika Waititi’s “What We Do in the Shadows.” Cage himself produced one of the great vampire riffs with “Shadow of the Vampire,” which imagined that the director of “Nosferatu” hired a real vampire for the lead role. “Renfield” almost matches those movies when it sticks to the comedy, mixing it with slapstick gore whenever Dracula munches on a body, devours a whole therapy class and cackles with crimson fangs. Those moments become too few because they are also fighting for space with the action movie that is crammed in. Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman’s screenplay is only just satirizing one half here. The rest plays like just another generic action fest where the drug-dealing Lobos team up with Dracula, who has a vague world domination scheme. He seems to charm Bellafrancesca but the joke never goes anywhere. Awkwafina’s Rebecca is underused as a meet-cute for Renfield. She’s also tagged with a side story about avenging her father, who was a cop killed by the Lobo family. Teddy eventually gets tapped with some vampire powers so he can get drunk with power and brawl with Renfield. 

To be fair the action is skillfully done. Rampages through the crime family’s compound including the usual shootouts and diving through windows are combined with comedic relief in the gore. “Renfield” the comedy races with the wannabe ‘90s ammo splurge. What keeps it from going totally off the rails is that McKay wisely keeps the movie at a good run time of an hour and a half. Despite being unbalanced, the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome. The final showdown with Dracula culminates in a truly hilarious bit involving Rebecca learning to love sawing a body apart. Overshadowing the weaker elements is Cage, who has been going through a phase of doing either straight to video oddities or intriguing arthouse choices. His best recent work remains the brilliantly demented “Mandy” and uniquely moving “Pig.” The madness is present here in the best moments, until it holds back for the chase scenes. Nicholas Hoult is a worthy counter to Cage, showing some of the quirky vulnerability he served in “The Menu.” This movie has plenty of entertainment in it, but the actors are so good we want them to come back in a real vampire spoof that bites better.

Renfield” releases April 14 in theaters nationwide.