It seemed great on paper. Nicholas Cage as Dracula? It’s a role he was born for; it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner (sorry, Kiss from the vampire does not count).
Renfield, Dracula’s long-suffering servant – or in vampire parlance, “trusted” – plagued with co-dependency issues and seeking help in a support group? Sounds hilarious. An original story by Robert Kirkman, creator of The living Dead? I am there.
It comes down to
So why does Renfield who play down promising aspects and turn out to be such a goddamn mess?
The movie, which comes from Universal’s understandable continued attempts to capitalize on its classic monsters IP, certainly starts off promising. Renfield, played by Nicholas Hoult, provides background on his relationship with the vampire in his life and illustrates his narration with nothing less than scenes from the classic 1931 Tod Browning film Dracula. Cage and Hoult are digitally inserted into the footage, replacing Bela Lugosi and the great Dwight Frye, and it’s a total kick. You find yourself waiting to see if Zelig will appear.
And then Renfield shows up at the support group, led by the friendly, hospitable Mark (Brandon Scott Jones, CBS’ Ghosts), only to discover that his issues with Nosferatu aren’t exactly on the same level as the other members who have standard toxic relationship issues. So far, so good.
And then, for some inexplicable reason, Renfield turns into, of all things, a generic crime drama. We are introduced to Rebecca (Awkwafina), a New Orleans police officer frustrated at being relegated to guarding a checkpoint for drunk drivers instead of going after the Lobo crime family responsible for her father’s death, a police officer. The organization is led by the elegant Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her hot-headed son Tedward (Ben Schwartz, who is clearly having a good time), the latter of whom eventually encounters Dracula in his lair and gleefully becomes one of his undead henchmen.
Ryan Ridley’s convoluted screenplay proves less than compelling as Renfield and Rebecca become unlikely partners after he saves her life when the Lobos’ heavily armed henchmen storm a bar where she’s looking for suspects. The reason Renfield is able to almost single-handedly decimate the gang is because he gains superpowers after swallowing bugs, a nod to the original character pumped on steroids here.
The result is a seemingly endless number of graphically violent encounters in which the physically unprepossessing Renfield manages to dismember his opponents at will, their various body parts, organs and limbs exploding in bloody CGI mess. Director Chris McKay (The war of tomorrow, The LEGO Batman Movie) leans into the blood with unabashed glee, but it soon becomes a case of diminishing returns; the heavily choreographed sequences descend into such absurd overkill that numbness sets in.
The movie brightens up dramatically when Dracula appears. Cage delivers a virtuoso twist, embellishing every facial expression and line-reading with a wildly entertaining Gothic flair that’s somehow cringe-inducing and hilarious at the same time. The actor, a Dracula aficionado (he produced the great Shadow of the vampireabout Max Schreck, the star of Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu), has long expressed his desire to play the part, and here he is making the most of it. He adds delightful touches like wearing a top hat in one scene, a nod to Lon Chaney’s vampire character in Browning’s lost 1927 film. London after midnight. (It hardly seems coincidental that this film is set in New Orleans, where he once lived in a literal haunted house and is destined to be buried in a specially designed pyramid mausoleum.)
Hoult is great too, continuing his penchant for ignoring his ridiculously good looks — no one with cheekbones like that deserves to be funny too — to play offbeat comedic roles. And Renfield is certainly unusual, especially when he ditches his tattered, vintage suit to don a brightly colored sweater and chinos to better blend in with the crowd. You can bet Dracula has something to say about that.
But the actors’ best efforts are thwarted by the tired plot mechanics, which downplays its most interesting element, the hilariously dysfunctional Dracula/Renfield relationship, and instead emphasizes the kind of gangster movie plot that would have seemed stale in a Warner Bros. Brothers movie from the 1930s. . Not to mention Renfield constantly gobbling bugs to gain super strength, like a demented Marvel character. Forget the action/horror/comedy stuff. All you want to see is Dracula and Renfield sitting in a room together and talking.
Production company: Skybound/Giant Wildcat
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, Brandon Scott Jones
Directed by: Chris McKay
Screenwriter: Ryan Ridley
Producers: Chris McKay, Samantha Nisenboim, Bryan Furst, Sean Furst, Robert Kirkman, David Alpert
Executive Producer: Todd Lewis
Director of Photography: Mitchell Amundsen
Production Designers: Julie Berghoff, Alec Hammond
Editors: Ryan Folsey, Giancarlo Ganziano, Mako Kamitsuna
Composer: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: Lisa Lovaas
Casting: Rich Delia
Rated R, 1 hour 33 minutes