Renfield is the latest in a long line of attempts from Universal Pictures to rebrand their classic monsters. After the notable bomb of The Mummy in 2017 dashed any hope of Universal Picture for an interconnected shared universe, the studio shifted to stand-alone stories focused on the Universal Monsters, allowing filmmakers to attempt dramatic reimaginings. The first attempt was the critically acclaimed and financially successful The Invisible Man with Elisabeth Moss, and now comes Renfield, opting to pivot focus on a classic supporting character from Dracula and drop the franchise into an action-comedy to mixed results.
Renfield is directed by Chris McKay, whose previous credits include The Lego Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War. The film stars Nicholas Hoult as the titular character alongside Nicolas Cage as Dracula, which is one of the best bits of stunt casting in recent years. The film features a talented supporting cast that includes Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Adrian Martinez, and Brandon Scott Jones, who all do their best to elevate a film with a strong premise that plays out less like American Werewolf in London and more like a comedic spin on an Underworld film.
Despite being pitched as a reimagining of Dracula, Renfield is a loose sequel to Universal Pictures’ original version of Dracula in 1931, and includes recreations of the iconic film with stars Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult replacing Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, respectively. The story picks up in modern-day New Orleans, where Renfield (Hoult) is rethinking his 100-year relationship with Dracula (Cage) as his familiar.
Renfield finally gets the courage to stand up to Dracula when he falls for traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who is trying to take down the criminal organization that killed her police chief father. This leads to Renfield and Quincy’s words crossing and Dracula allying with the criminals to get revenge on Renfield for abandoning him.
Believe it or not, this is Universal’s second major attempt at relaunching Dracula in the past decade. The previous was 2014’s Dracula Untold starring Luke Evans, which was intended to kick-start a shared universe but was quickly forgotten about, and Universal pivoted to The Mummy being the start of their failed Dark Universe.
Interestingly Dracula Untold ended with a post-credit scene of Dracula in the modern day. While that tease never led to anything, it appears that the pitch of Dracula in the present day has stuck around and captivated Universal Pictures enough to grow into Renfield.
Whereas Dracula Untold tried to mold the character into a traditional superhero origin story inspired by Batman Begins, Renfield is heavily inspired by the self-aware humor of action films like the MCU and later Fast and Furious movies. Universal Pictures also has a second Dracula picture set for release in 2023 titled The Last Voyage of Demeter.
The film’s script is penned by Rick and Morty writer Ryan Ridley from a story idea by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. Much of the film’s issues can be traced to the script, particularly the addition of a mob subplot which has been absent from the film’s marketing and has instead opted to focus on the Renfield/Dracula dynamic. The entire mob storyline feels like it is there to generate action scenes. While the method to get to the action scenes is questionable, the action itself is a blast. McKay is having fun showing how powerful vampire violence can be fully realized. The comically over-the-top gory mutilations with buckets of blood call to mind the vibrant blood of Hammer Horror films.
Renfield has a compelling pitch, but one that is being torn in many directions. Examing Dracula and Renfield through the lens of a toxic relationship where one person in the dynamic literally feeds off others is both a compelling and clever reworking of the original text to fit within a modern setting. Yet that element of the movie is constantly fighting with the mob subplot, which begins to overwhelm the movie.
That is not to say the movie is tonally inconsistent. The film fully commits to its tone from the beginning, so the audience knows exactly what type of film this is from the start. The real issue comes from the jokes in this comedy, which often do not land. This is partly because the vampire-in-a-modern-setting jokes have been done better in both the film and television series, like What We Do In The Shadows.
The other problem is that sometimes the film doesn’t have jokes at all, and instead falls back on characters calling out the absurdity of a scene, hoping that it will be funny. Luckily, the film has talented comedic stars like Awkwafina and Ben Schwartz, here playing a spoiled heir to a criminal empire, who know how to deliver those types of lines in the funniest way possible even if they really shouldn’t work.