Fangtastic! John Wick meets Van Helsing meets Warm Bodies in this imaginary adaptation of the Dracula mythos inspired by the original Universal Monster classic. While that may sound like the most unusual combination of movies, it works surprisingly well in Renfield from the birthplace of the American horror film.
Renfield, the tortured aide to his narcissistic boss, Dracula, is forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding. However, after centuries of servitude, he’s ready to see if there’s a life outside the shadow of the Prince of Darkness.
Just like Dracula and Renfield, in the original Dracula, metaphorically exist in two realms simultaneously, this movie also exists in two realms: horror and comedy. And these two genres are both satisfied in the characterization and conflicts of this highly entertaining movie. Suffice it to say, it’s a really good movie–shocking–I know.
After the questionable trailers (which I try to avoid as much as possible; a practice of mine since marketing companies don’t usually know when to hold the cards back), I went into this movie with tempered expectations at best. Moreover, I honestly went in with low expectations for what I thought was going to be a ‘we set out to make a movie that is so bad that it’s good.’ The problem with that is that a filmmaker cannot intentionally create a so bad it’s good movie. It’s lightning in a bottle when it happens because the intention was to create a good movie, that just happened to turn out (to usually be) campy.
Spiritual sequels often struggle to find that place wherein the legacy film and new, reimagined approach intersect in ways that don’t rewrite or retcon the past yet provide a new experience. There have been countless official and unofficial adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, not to mention, hundreds of vampire movies that are directly inspired by the Dracula mythos. Therein lies the challenge: how to craft something new from that which is proliferated. Renfield works because the writers selected a character that factors significantly into the original material, yet has never been truly explored as a character following the events of Dracula.
Oh yeah, the recreations of the original Dracula, complete with (what looks to be) non-CGI gothic sets and lighting, made for a fantastic way to open the film.
Nicolas Cage, Nicholas Hoult, and Awkwafina were excellent casting choices, especially Cage’s Dracula, whom resembles Bela Lugosi even more than Walter Matthou’s in Ed Wood. Cage and Hoult demonstrate fantastic chemistry, and they scenes are among the best in the film. Hoult and Awkwafina may not have the chemistry that he has with Cage, but they still manage to play off one another well enough. Hoult not only looks like our original Renfield, but he finds an exemplary balance between tragedy and comedy. This film certainly provides him with a vessel to showcase his outstanding acting chops. Awkwafina brings a subdued version of her comedic brand, and it works great! Often times, her characters have annoyed me because they are often obnoxious, but not this time.
The violence is amped up to the nth degree! And it is wildly campy! I was reminded of the level of laughable violence and gore in Tucker and Dale vs Evil! While it could have been so easy for the violence and gore to be tasteless and gratuitous, it never crosses that line. Why? Because it is on a comic levels that is designed to elicit laugher instead of wincing, visceral, uncomfortable pain. Every sequence with kills is going for a laugh and not a scare or provocation. And the kills are wonderfully creative and on-brand for the tone of the film.
Renfield successfully connects the original film to this new adaptation in ways that pay respectful homage to the original but craft new expressions that are sure to please audiences. Perhaps the original isn’t a prerequisite for this one, BUT you will have far greater appreciation for the flashbacks and references to the original. If you’re a horror fan, particularly of the original Universal Monsters, then you definitely don’t want to miss Renfield!
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.