Universal hasn’t been doing well with their monster-related cinematic universes since the 1950s, when the overlapping and screen-sharing came primarily in Abbott and Costello crossover movies. The “Dark Universe,” which was supposed to kick off with 2017’s The Mummy (a favorite of both critics and fans), was a catastrophic failure. It’s astounding when you think about it — you’d think that a studio that owns the rights to such iconic characters and stories would know how to handle them, and give them the films they deserve.
The solution? Begin again, of course — but not overtly. Start off with a film that establishes the world in a unique and exciting way, but could function as a one-off if it all goes south. Throw in Chris McKay, director of The LEGO Batman Movie, and Rick and Morty writer Ryan Ridley and you have a certifiably bonkers movie on your hands.
Renfield is actually a legacy sequel, or “requel,” to the original 1931 Dracula, which famously starred Bela Lugosi as the blood-sucking Count. The connection is made through expertly-recreated black and white footage, replacing Lugosi with Nicolas Cage, and Dwight Frye (the original Renfield) with the new film’s star, Nicholas Hoult. While Renfield does end up retconning its “predecessor” in terms of characterization and tone (Renfield is an undeniable comedy, and Cage’s Dracula is the very definition of hammy scene-stealing…but what else would one expect when casting Cage as this iconic figure?), the connection itself is a fun twist.
I won’t lie: on paper, Renfield has a lot going for it. It plays with vampire lore and explores the comedic possibilities of its premise very well — but some choices it makes on a path to a predictable ending are downright baffling, and bring down what otherwise could have been a fantastic experience.
Nearly a century after coming into Dracula’s employment, Renfield has had enough. He’s realized that his relationship with the Count is toxic and abusive, and he needs to do something about it. He teams up with traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (played by Awkwafina of Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi), who is a similarly frustrating point in her life, to take down a local crime family, led by Bellafrancesca (The Expanse’s Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her immature son Teddy Lobo (a perfectly-cast Ben Schwartz).
I like Awkwafina — when she’s cast in the right roles. Her character in Renfield seems like it was written for her, but the character itself feels out of place when put into context with the film’s other story elements. The mob storyline is fun at points (almost exclusively when Schwartz is living it up), but it often feels dragged-out, entirely separate from the film’s fantastical storyline, and not in a good way.
Nicolas Cage is, as you might expect, the highlight. But he’s so much of a highlight that Renfield feels slow and plodding when he’s not on-screen, even though we know that Nicholas Hoult is a capable performer that is capable of commanding the screen on his own. He’s fantastic as Renfield, but he has the disadvantage of serving Nic Cage both as a character and a performer, even if the latter is unintentional.
Half of Renfield is a fully-rounded, fleshed-out horror/comedy with some solid messaging and really fun (insane) action violence. The other half feels like a first draft, half-baked and neither entertaining nor funny. The two Nic(k)s are phenomenal, which is what I was expecting and hoping would be the case. More silly Universal monster movies, please!
Renfield is playing now in theaters.