Review by Tim Robins
Renfield is a new comedy-drama built around the relationship between Dracula (Nicholas Cage) and his long suffering familiar (played by Nicholas Hoult).
The somewhat incidental character of Renfield has made memorable appearances in adaptations of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel, notably Universal’s (1931) adaptation of a Dracula stage play, in which Renifield’s off screen laugh impactfully heralds the character’s arrival on stage/screen, and in the Francis Ford Coppola directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), where Tom Waits manages to steal every scene he is in with Renfield’s maniacal escalating cravings for flies, spiders, birds and kittens.
In Renfield, the Count’s ‘familiar’ has cured himself of his addiction to insects, although they bestow upon him superheroic powers that allow him to, for instance, rip a man’s arms off and use them as nunchucks. The incredibly gory violence is used throughout as a bathetic ‘jump laugh’ , undercutting Renfield’s desire to live a life of emotional sharing and pastel coloured jumpers.
This lifestyle choice runs counter to Dracula’s need for victims who are pure at heart, such as nuns and cheerleaders – cue a venue with nuns and a busload of cheerleaders arriving outside. Added violence is provided by gangsters, led by Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bellafrancesca, her hyperactive eager-to- impress son, Teddy (Ben Schwarz, always good value) and a corrupt police department with Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) as the one good traffic cop and Renfield’s love interest.
As the titular Renfield, Nicholas Hoult is somewhat younger than the 59-year-old that Stoker’s novel suggests, and decidedly not a visitor to Count Dracula prior to the Count’s fateful encounter with solicitor Jonathan Harker.
Nicholas Cage proves an irresistible force outside the role of Dracula and a major reason for Renfield’s box office appeal. In Renfield, when Cage is not chewing up the scenery he is chowing down on the cast, including members of Renfield’s support group for people in abusive relationships.
Vampires have sometimes been used for comedy including Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killer, or Pardon Me, Your Teeth are in My Neck (1967) and What We Do in the Shadows, both a film (2014) and, to date, four seasons of a TV series. In fact, Dracula himself has become passé, the character’s dignity having been stabbed through the heart in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 5).
Renfield certainly explores the comedy potential of juxtaposing a touchy-feely character with an increasingly demanding and violent Dracula. Cage’s make-up, before and after he goes on a personal story arc to regenerate his burnt-to-a-crisp body, is remarkably reminiscent of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Cage is Cage, even when buried under burnt flesh. He doesn’t play the role for laughs. Personally, I find the actor funnier when he is playing sincere characters, rather than a raving maniac as here.
Renfield is funny enough, but the changes in tone were exhausting as I tried to work out whether or not I was supposed to take the characters seriously – not the kind of dilemma faced in such parodies as Naked Gun (1988) or Airplane! (1980). There’s also something amiss with the film’s pacing, while its continual use of the same kind of bathetic joke – cute, earnest set up, violent, shocking pay off – became tiresome. Other gags are tried and tested ways of provoking laughter. The characters continually express a distaste for ska music. This is OK, but I kept wondering, why ska? It’s not exactly a hot button music genre. It might have been funnier if everyone loved the currently prevalent use of autotune.
About half-way through the film my attention began to wander and I gave up. The on-going problem of Brighton’s Odeon not being able to properly dim the lights in Screen Six meant it was easier to see what the audience were eating two rows in front of me than see the actual light reflected by the film. But the real problem was that the generic gags failed to entertain me enough. I’d seen many of them before, minus the vampiric blood-letting.
I hate to say it, but I think Dracula has been done to death.
• Renfield is in cinemas across the UK now
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