‘Renfield’ Is a (Type) B Movie

Alternative review titles (with puns):

  • ‘Renfield’ Is Bloody Hilarious
  • Hackneyed Crime Plot Drains the Life Out of ‘Renfield’
  • Nic Hoult Vessel ‘Renfield’ Uses Awkwafina in Vein

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.

A few years ago, Universal Studios concocted a plan to create a Marvel-style machine out of its monster IP. The acting lineup for the “Dark Universe” was as out of date as monster movies themselves. Johnny Depp would play The Invisible Man, Russell Crowe was slated to star as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Javier Bardem would bolt in as Frankenstein.

Only one movie in the Dark Universe ever got made —— Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, a film that managed just $80 million in domestic box office against an estimated $125 million budget.

Not content to let aging IP sit in the freezer, Universal pivoted. And now we have Renfield, a mid-budget studio comedy-horror flick starring Nicholas Hoult as the titular familiar and Nicolas Cage as Count Dracula.

The film’s premise is clever: A century after Dracula made him his servant, Renfield wants out. His boss, you see, is a bit of a narcissist, leaving no space for Renfield to live a life for himself. That, and the killing of innocents is getting a bit tiresome. While out hunting for his master’s prey in New Orleans, Renfield comes into the orbit of pure-intentioned beat cop Rebecca (Awkwafina), who stares down a crime boss (Ben Schwartz) intent on killing her. In this, Renfield sees a model for how he can stand up to his boss. A series of incidents leave the criminal in cahoots with Dracula while Rebecca and Renfield line up against them.

Unfortunately, the plot that unfolds —— cop vs. crime lord —— is the type of broad comedy we’ve seen plenty of times. The film that came to mind was the 2020 Netflix film The Lovebirds, in which Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani witness a cop commit murder (also filmed in New Orleans).

New Orleans PD is depicted as so corrupt that it literally sends in SWAT alongside the gang in pure daylight. Multiple blatant and obvious crimes result in no arrests —— only reprimands for Awkwafina. Nonetheless, she stoicly fights against the system even when everyone is against her.

Though Awkwafina is funny as usual, her one-dimensional character does the movie no favors, draining the movie of tension; you just always know what she’s going to do. Instead, it should be cashing in on the potential for conflict between her and Renfield, who are awkwafinard allies. Moreover, the cartoonish, matter-of-fact handling of police corruption, though it delivers some laughs, renders her actions mostly meaningless. When the captain ignores a murder attempt against Rebecca, she clings to the hope that she’ll find some DNA evidence on a pen. (Like, if a restaurant full of people witnessing a massacre isn’t enough, what makes you think anyone cares about a writing instrument found at an unrelated crime scene?)

The movie is at its best when it’s focused on Renfield, whose character is, ahem, more fleshed out. He’s in a bad relationship and seeking help (and, perhaps, victims) at a co-dependants’ anonymous support group. Those scenes, which mix humor with humanism, work. When the positive affirmations Renfield learns come into contrast with the reality of his needy, overbearing boss —— who just so happens to be a monster —— the film finds it footing.

And then we’re driven back to a lifeless crime plot. To be fair, the humor and action —— more crazy kills than a John Wick flick —— were enough to keep me entertained. I just wished the film had let itself find the universal by focusing on what makes these characters particular, instead of injecting a B- plot into a clever premise.

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