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‘Renfield’ review: The modern tyranny of Dracula’s reign might give you justifiable reasoning to quiet quit

Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Hoult make for some funny moments as a toxic master and familiar relationship as some of the story elements impede on each other.

Universal Pictures

Codependency is defined as a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person manifesting low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval has an unhealthy attachment to another, often controlling or manipulative person. In the classic sense, we think of this term regarding romantic relationships and friendships, which have an unbalanced power dynamic. For a second, picture a scenario if you were in such a situation with Dracula (it’s ok if you can’t). To Renfield’s credit, having Nicolas Cage take a turn at playing the legendary vampire is to the film’s benefit. He reveals in the Bela Lugosi-esque sheen with a comical edge only Cage could provide.

While Cage’s presence is undeniable, the character of Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is the focal point of this tale. Dreading the long days of servitude fetching Dracula's unsuspecting victims to restore his form in modern-day New Orleans, Renfield wonders what an untethered life would feel like. It’s a challenging concept considering Dracula’s omnipresence connection in his mind and penchant for nearly killing and healing him (Dracula’s blood has the power to restore). Is self-reliance a concept that Renfield could even find for himself, considering the barriers?

Director Chris McKay strives to achieve a tonal balance of buckets of blood—the story by Robert Kirkman and writer Ryan Ridley that aims to make some emotional impact. Renfield wants to show off a lot of connective tissue for a simple concept – it can’t all just be a toxic boss and worker exposition – even though it’s apropos for what people are experiencing in the workforce.

Outside of the abusive support groups and self-assertive books Renfield attends and reads, there’s a police officer named Rebecca (Awkwafina) who works within a highly corrupt department. Wanting some atonement for her father’s death, she goes after the Lobos – an extremely powerful and overarching crime family with the eccentric Teddy (Ben Schwartz) and his crime boss mother, Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo). A chance encounter and an entertainingly gory action sequence bring Renfield and Rebecca together as they seek answers to their situations.

It’s not that this pairing flounders from an acting perspective – it’s just that Renfield and Rebecca’s goals are very tonally different. On the one hand, Renfield is getting his own studio apartment and shopping at Old Navy for new clothes. On the other side of the spectrum, Rebecca is at a crime scene trying to do detective work. There are a couple of moments where Hoult and Awkwafina play off of each other that works, but Renfield’s story holds more weight.

After all, what is a promise of riches and mortality regarding the cost of your freedom and those you care about? Renfield has moments where it pauses to contemplate these notions – albeit at a brisk pace that knows when to deploy the zany nature of Cage. The mythology is also here – crosses, stakes, familiars, and holy water. Renfield gains power by eating bugs which he first holds in a case. Hoult and Cage deploy classic 1930s Universal monsters-like accents. The film operates within an over-the-top encasing that elects for the proverbial slow-down fight shots and a bucket full of one-liners.

Renfield operates as a love letter to Dracula lore of the past and early 2000s action comedies. There are some aspects where it feels dated and others where characters refer to “Wiccan Tumblr” for a protection spell that works because they come off naturally. To think time would be better served which those aspects that went to jabs about ska music. At some points, it feels like the film doesn’t know the center of present it exists within. Even as it feels like two films are fighting for space, there are some redeeming qualities Renfield has to offer to place these fish-out-of-water immortals in a modern context.

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