With his long track record of playing oddballs, you might wonder why it’s taken Nicolas Cage this long to sink his teeth into playing a bloodsucking fiend, as he does in this week’s Universal Pictures release, Renfield.
Then you remember: Oh yeah, he did play one before, in 1987’s Vampire’s Kiss.
It seems a natural fit for Cage. Channeling not only that earlier comedy’s fixation on German Expressionist cinema and long leering looks, the actor this time goes even further, incorporating a lifetime of fame and experience into playing a disincorporating ghoul.
He’s matched by Nicholas Hoult, as Robert Montague Renfield, a man trapped for over a century in a co-dependent relationship with the Count.
Set in present-day New Orleans, Renfield leans right into the splatter comedy served up in a script by Ryan Ridley (from a story by Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman) and helmed by Lego Batman Movie director Christopher McKay.
We first meet Renfield in voiceover, bemoaning a lifetime spent serving an egotistical a-hole of a vampire with delusions of world conquest. It’s not as though Dracula is even a serious kind of undead person; all he cares about his whims, his needs, his snacks—including a running request for fresh nuns and school buses full of cheerleaders—which Renfield must fetch and which the Count consumes in binges of florid violence and bloodletting.
And yeah, even for a vampire flick, Renfield serves up giddy levels of gore. Faces are ripped off; arms are torn from sockets then used as weapons; heads explode like watermelons under the sledgehammer of prop comedian Gallagher. It’s a lot. But it’s presented in such a hyper-charged, beat-‘em-up manner that all we can do is gape at the screen as the mayhem unfolds.
Cage doesn’t need to go too far over the top here. He merely has to show the eternal exasperation of a toxic boss whose underling fails to deliver for him promptly enough.
And, often, smile. Because this is a splatter comedy that is served well by its leads. Cage brings extra fun to playing a completely self-absorbed Prince of Darkness; his ego obliterates Renfield, who finds himself trapped in a “a full-blown everlasting-life crisis” and resorts to a support group to learn how to unlatch himself from the (literal) bloodsucker who is preventing him from moving on.
Enter Awkwafina—an inspired bit of casting as Rebecca Quincy, a New Orleans traffic cop with rage issues whose honest-cop dad was killed in the deeply corrupt city. She’s got the right amount of sass for the role, and soon becomes Hoult’s partner in bringing down the evil Dracula, as well as the Lobo crime family headed by Shohreh Aghdashloo and son Ben Schwartz. (There’s a fun moment where their hard-crime veneer is undone upon meeting the Count, and they instantly transform into gushing fangirl and fanboy.)
While Universal Pictures has tried every which way to revive its Classic Monsters franchise (lastly in the ill-received Tom Cruise mess, The Mummy), Renfield simply plays it all for laughs, going for the tone of American Werewolf in London or What We Do in the Shadows. Vampires in the modern world can indeed be funny, even if the trope has been done to, er, death by Twilight and its many incarnations.
Certainly, the story doesn’t hold up to much analysis—Renfield must team up with Rebecca to bring down the Lobo family and extricate himself from Dracula’s iron grip; kill a bunch of bad guys in inventive ways; wash, rinse, repeat—but viewed in the same spirit as David Harbour’s murderous Santa revenge romp in last year’s Violent Night, well, it’s definitely worth a couple of chuckles. And like Cocaine Bear, it has the sense to know that anything beyond its 93-minute length would be pushing our attention spans.
Cage doesn’t need to go too far over the top here. He merely has to show the eternal exasperation of a toxic boss whose underling fails to deliver for him promptly enough. He conveys this exasperation, even through mounds of decaying makeup, while recovering from a particularly bad sunrise scorch under the ministrations of a patient but worn-thin Renfield, who consumes insects for his own super-energy bursts.
And it must have been a German Expressionist gas for Cage, being inserted into footage from the 1931 Bela Lugosi original (with Hoult replacing Dwight Frye’s iconically fiendish henchman). If ever a role was made for a certain actor to relish, it’s this one.
(Another fun fact: Renfield was shot in New Orleans, a place where Cage decades ago purchased himself a pretty striking pyramid-shaped crypt inside the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to retire in… someday.)
* * *
Renfield is released through Universal Pictures, now showing in cinemas.