For the majority of vampire movies, there are two ways to go: scary or funny. Having a blood-sucking monster as the villain makes "scary" the natural option, but plenty of filmmakers have had fun with the subgenre, including Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk till Dawn), Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), and more.
The new film Renfield leans hard into the latter path, but the filmmakers don’t stick with comedy all the way through. The film also has a misplaced confidence that doesn’t always serve it well.
Renfield is named not after a vampire, but a man (Nicholas Hoult) who has been a longtime grudging assistant to Dracula (Nicolas Cage). But procuring victims for the Prince of Darkness is not exactly a fulfilling job, and Renfield turns to support groups for help.
Run-ins with police officer Rebecca (Awkwafina) and Tedward Lobo (Ben Schwartz), son of mob boss Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo), offer a chance at separation, but not without pushback from Dracula. Through a series of orgies of bloodshed, Renfield and Rebecca take on all-comers, with Dracula waiting in a final showdown.
Directed by Chris McKay and written by Ryan Ridley based on an original idea from The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman, the film is similar to the recent Cocaine Bear in that it derives a lot of its laughs from its graphic violence. There is no pretense to any of the carnage; almost every kill is accompanied by an explosion of blood, as if human skin was merely a thin balloon that gushes forth a flood of gore when opened in the right (vicious) way.
The effect of that style works well when it’s used, although the lack of variety makes for diminishing returns. It’s when the filmmakers are dealing with any other part of the story that they fumble the ball. Much is made of the mob side of the story with little effort put forth to actually make those characters interesting. And the juxtaposition of comedy and over-the-top action scenes makes for a somewhat jarring experience.
Cage is great casting as Dracula, and when he’s allowed to let loose, it’s entertaining, but they don’t go to him as often as you might think. Hoult puts on a similar demeanor as he did as a zombie in Warm Bodies, and he’s very enjoyable when he’s not involved in fight scenes. Awkwafina, Schwartz, and Aghdashloo all seem a little miscast in their respective roles.
Renfield is one of those films where the wild moments overshadow the fact that it doesn’t really have much else going for it. The rivers of blood that are unleashed are great for shock value, but the film as a whole is as empty as the bodies left behind.
Renfield opens in theaters on April 14.