“Renfield” Is a High-Concept Comedy That Doesn’t Suck

13 Apr

Poor Robert Montague Renfield.

For hundreds of years, he’s been in a dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship with his boss, someone who takes advantage of Renfield, summoning him from wherever he is to demand food and other assistance. Renfield gave up his life to work for this man, abandoning his wife and child, and all these years later, his boss has never shown him any appreciation. He just keeps on being more and more demanding.

You might say Renfield’s boss is a real monster — and you’d be right. That’s because his boss is the Prince of Darkness himself, Dracula. Renfield is Dracula’s familiar.

Suffice it to say, all these years later, Renfield has finally had enough, and he’s decided he wants out of this relationship. He just doesn’t know how to do it. And that’s the high-concept premise of the new horror comedy Renfield, a film that doesn’t suck. Really.

Yes, like Cocaine Bear, Renfield probably has you laughing just thinking about its plot. But unlike Cocaine Bear, this movie actually sustains the joke for most of its run. Directed by Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie) from a screenplay by Ryan Ridley (Rick & Morty), and based on an original idea by The Walking Dead and Invincible creator Robert Kirkman, it delivers a clever and often laugh-out-loud take on modern pop psychology that’s infused with broad, stylized action and plenty of blood and gore, and also makes amusing use of footage from the 1931 Dracula movie. 

The film is set in modern-day New Orleans, where Renfield (Nicholas Hoult, from last year’s The Menu) spends his nights in a local bar waiting to capture his boss’s next meal — fresh blood, preferably from unsuspecting tourists, nuns, or cheerleaders. More importantly, he’s in a support group for people also looking to extricate themselves from toxic relationships. (Brandon Scott Jones, from the TV show Ghosts, plays the group’s leader.) He’s already followed the group’s advice and has moved into a studio apartment, which he’s decorated with cheesy inspirational posters.

What works best in Renfield is the interplay between Hoult, who displays great comic timing as the put-upon, long-suffering slave to the narcissistic blood guzzler, and Nicolas Cage, who is all in and is clearly having a blast playing the Count. (He’s more enjoyable here than he was in last year’s satirical Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.) Their dialogue is delivered with just the right tone, and while Cage goes the full Cage, camping it up as only he can, they both take the goofy premise seriously enough that it all just works.

Most of it, anyway. A subplot involving a crime family (Ben Schwartz and Shohreh Aghdashloo) and a traffic cop (Awkwafina) trying to stop them seems unnecessary and undermines the main storyline. I’d rather have seen Schwartz apply his comic talents as a disbelieving friend of Renfield instead of him playing it straight as a drug boss.

At just 93 minutes, though, Renfield generally sticks the landing, offering a bloody good time from start to finish. Invite this one in; you won’t regret it.

I’m giving Renfield a B+.

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