Renfield: Nicolas Cage carries this supernatural comedy as the Count

The latest Stoker resurrection turns its attention to Renfield, a put upon sidekick desperate to escape his ‘toxic’ relationship with Dracula. It’s not short on giggles and gore, but despite Nicolas Cage’s entertainingly excessive turn as the Count, the film never quite sustains its premise.

12 April 2023

By Philip Kemp

Nicolas Cage as Dracula in Renfield (2023)Nicolas Cage as Dracula in Renfield (2023) © Courtesy of Universal Studios
Sight and Sound

In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, Renfield is a delusional inmate in an asylum who eats live insects and rats to become immortal, having been brainwashed by the titular count. (He’s even given his name to a real-life syndrome, also known as clinical vampirism, wherein patients feel inclined to consume blood.) In Renfield, directed by Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie, 2017; The Tomorrow War, 2021) and scripted by Ryan Ridley (Rick and Morty, 2013-17), he’s become the Count’s lackey, tasked with providing the vampire with desirable nourishment: “a handful of nuns,” suggests Dracula, “or a coachload of cheerleaders”. But now, Renfield wants out.

Like other films in which the sidekick steals the narrative focus (as in 1988’s Without a Clue, where Dr Watson is the real genius detective, and Holmes a third-rate thespian used for camouflage), Renfield is played for laughs – though with no shortage of blood and violence. For Nicolas Cage, who plays the Count, this proved a major attraction; he takes evident relish in this richly excessive performance, making one wonder why nobody offered him the role before.

True, despite its deliberate blend of giggles and gore, it’s no American Werewolf in London (1980) and never quite sustains its premise; but at just under 90 minutes Renfield doesn’t outstay its welcome, diverting us with plenty of full-tilt fight scenes that are less wuxia than kung-foolery. The villains – especially Ben Schwartz as crime boss Teddy Lobo – match their over-the-top performances to Cage’s, and there’s chemistry between Nicholas Hoult’s Renfield and Awkwafina as seemingly the only non-corrupt cop in New Orleans.

Much of the humour draws on the clash between the melodramatic Stokerisms and the psychiatric clichés deployed in the addicts’ group that Renfield joins in the hope of ridding himself of his ‘toxic relationship’ with the Count. When the latter invades the group in full black-cape vampire gear, he levitates menacingly ceiling-wards, while announcing, “Some call me The Dark One, others The Lord of Death. To most, I am – Dracula.” To which Mark (Brandon Scott Jones), the group’s convenor, gasps, “Okay – obviously we’re dealing with a bit more than narcissism here.”

We may be seeing Hoult again in a similar context soon: he’s rumoured to be playing Thomas Hutter, the filmic equivalent of Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, in the forthcoming remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent 1922 classic Nosferatu. Since it’ll be directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015; The Northman, 2022), we can no doubt expect a rather less comedic take than in Renfield.

Renfield is in UK cinemas from Friday 14 April.  

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