Monday, September 25, 2023

Movie Review: “Renfield” is all bark and no bite

MosaicArts and EntertainmentMovie Review: “Renfield” is all bark and no bite

BY NADYA ELLERHORST
Executive Editor




I am a certified Blue Hen Vampirologist. Don’t believe me? Kindly refer to my unofficial transcript, where you’ll find LLCU 330/WOMS 330: Vampires in Folklore, Literature and Film, taught by the legendary Dr. Holly Myers. After spending a semester analyzing just about everything there is to know about vampires, not only do I know how to effectively thwart a vampire, but I’m particularly capable of spotting a decent vampire movie. With that said, I was eager to see “Reinfield” with my newfound critical eye, but I walked away with nothing but bad blood.

“Renfield” centers on a secondary character you may have been acquainted with through high school literature courses. However, instead of being confined to the subplot, this time, he’s the protagonist. Following yet another move to a new city to cover Dracula’s bloody tracks, Renfield, portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, begins attending a support group and realizes the toxicity of his codependent relationship. After all these manipulative years of doing Dracula’s evil bidding, he’s frankly had it with the Count, who’s played by Nicholas Cage. He’s ready to move on, put the bug-eating and victim-hunting behind him and start a new life instead of taking others’ – but Dracula isn’t so ready to part ways.

The movie’s trailer makes no secret that it’s a violent flick, and myself being gore-averse (ironic given the vampire class, I know), I almost skipped this one entirely. Wanting to put my expertise to good use, however, I spent about an hour perusing Common Sense Media and other trusted parenting sites to be certain I could handle it and, to really top off the experience, attended a late-night showing of the film. 

I have to award the film points for originality. As a juxtaposition to traditional vampiric-cinematic standards, Renfield is the alluring character here instead of the bloodsucker, offering his firsthand takes on life as Dracula’s familiar. For all of the violence he inflicts (more on that in a bit), Hoult’s Renfield is oddly lovable. He goes from a roach-munching familiar to a warm, pastel sweater-wearing sweetheart. While stale at first, Hoult likewise manages to have charming chemistry with Rebecca (played by Awkwafina), a police officer intent on busting a local crime family. I also appreciated how the film takes advantage of the magic of technology as a nod to classic vampire films. As the movie opens and Renfield talks about his and the Count’s history, the actors are overlaid on the iconic 1931 version of “Dracula.”

Cage kills it as Dracula – yes, literally and figuratively. He is sinister, barring a row of sharp fangs and slashing his long nails, but he also manages to imbue his ruthless character with laugh-out-loud humor. It’s frankly one of the best modern Dracula renditions I’ve seen. I think that one person who claims to have found a 19th century photo of Nicholas Cage is onto something. Maybe he IS a vampire.

Unfortunately, the efforts of the film’s stars aren’t enough to save an awful, violent plot punctuated with uncalled-for attempts at humor (on that note, Ben Schwartz plays criminal Teddy Lobo, but he sort of ends up reprising Jean-Ralphio, albeit a darker version). “Renfield” ends up being a strange, slapdash mix of the horror, comedy, action, coming-of-age and crime genres, and it just. Doesn’t. Work. The film jumps back and forth between Renfield’s personal struggles, a crime family, Rebecca’s efforts to avenge her father’s death and a whole lot of nasty, drawn-out fight sequences until things finally come together. It tries to be too many things at once, and the dizzying speed and resulting lack of development render this effort futile. 

Aspects of the plot also lacked reason. Following intense fight scenes, characters chat as if nothing has transpired, with not a hair out of place or drop of sweat visible. Some characters are likewise a little too quick to accept the existence of Dracula; when Renfield reveals his ties to a vampiric overlord, Rebecca barely even questions it.

And the violence of this film is absolutely revolting – needlessly so. It gets to a point where blood and guts serve as convenient interludes between weak plot points. The violence, which is at the forefront of the film right off the bat, initially made me uncomfortable, but it got to a point where it was so frequent and extravagant that I’d simultaneously cringe and roll my eyes.

This film made me wonder what ever happened to the days when two punctures on a neck were enough to make you squirm in your seat, or when a vampire need only loom on screen to make your adrenaline rise – no throat-ripping required. “Renfield” instead relies on what often looks like CGI cherry pie filling and disgusting, anatomically questionable gore to try to make things terrifying, and it fails miserably in this regard.

Sure, there were a few funny moments. But the film is jam-packed with what are for the most part jokes and quips that fall short. That alongside the copious violence was disorienting, and when humor and bloodshed occasionally merged, it just felt wrong to me.

There’s amusing bits now and then, a couple of characters you might end up liking and some clever references to Dracula lore, but “Renfield” sorely lacks depth. The irony is that the film isn’t really supposed to be about Dracula – it’s supposed to be about Renfield. And while Hoult is ideal for the role and his interpretation is great, even with his relatively limited screen time, Cage steals the show.

While it’s a clever attempt at new blood, you can skip “Renfield.” Your money’s better spent on garlic, wooden stakes or a vampire film with an actual bite.

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