Renfield: Taking a Bite Out of Crime

Sometimes, being a bad man pays off.

Based on a character from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the new horror comedy, Renfield, tells the story of Dracula’s loyal servant, Robert Renfield (Nicholas Hoult). Having committed his life to the Dark Lord, Renfield does his master’s bidding and spends his days looking for Dracula’s next prey. However, after centuries of service, he has grown become beaten down by the Dracula’s toxic demands and he begins to look at ways to end their co-dependant relationship.

Directed by Chris McKay, Renfield is delightfully silly, blissfully self-aware and very, very bloody. Written by Ryan Ridley, the script is fully aware of its own silliness and bites into it with enthusiasm. Dracula has always been a character who walked the line between terrifying allegory and hilarious self-parody and Renfield takes the opportunity to have some genuine fun. However, that’s also not to say that the film’s irreverence mocks horror culture. Instead, Renfield honours its classic roots with moments that mirror classic German cinema. At least initially, this is a film that wants to feel authentic to its source material before the laughs truly take over.

(from left) Dracula (Nicolas Cage) and Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) in Renfield, directed by Chris McKay.

What’s more, with blood on the menu, it’s important to note that the film’s violence is deliberately graphic. In Renfield, characters don’t die so much as they explode. Blood splatters across the screen, spraying at almost Monty Python-esque levels. Limbs are severed with surprising glee. And yes, bodies are piled upon bodies on more than one occasion. Even so, the film’s energy and enthusiasm keeps the mayhem more humorous than horrific. (Undoubtedly though, more squeamish viewers should be aware beforehand.)

As the Lord of Darkness himself, Cage continues to make a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most delightfully manic actors. Deliberately selecting projects that lean into the bizarre, Cage has reinvented himself over the last decade as an A-list star in B-list movies. In Renfield, he continues to show his ‘nose-feratu’ for the weird and wonderful, elevating the material with over-the-top madness.

However, while Cage may be the draw, it’s Hoult that ultimately holds the film together. Despite his brutal behaviour, Hoult has a sensitivity about him that keeps the film from becoming soulless. As the turbulent and traumatized Renfield, Hoult charms the viewer to believe in him, despite his dark service to the vampiric villain. (After all, just because you’re a bad guy, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy.)

By focusing on Hoult’s haunting humility, Renfield ultimately becomes an allegory for the damage done by toxic relationships. Renfield has become broken and lost. Here, Drac is portrayed as the ultimate narcissist, manipulating his servant to believe that he is nothing without his master’s otherworldly power. Dracula hovers over his minion with menace, sucking him dry of his emotions.

Nicholas Hoult as Renfield in Renfield, directed by Chris McKay.

Trapped in his endless, dead-end relationship with Dracula, Disgusted by his actions, the former husband and father seeks redemption but remains unsure of how to do so. As a result, he decides to attend a support group so that he can listen to the stories of those trapped in abusive environments. With each tale of trauma, he gains hope that, maybe, he too might become free. (And, if it helps him choose Dracula’s next meal, all the better.)

But these meetings also help set up Renfield’s conversation about the nature of justice. By making him sympathetic, McKay gives Renfield almost (anti)heroic status, walking the line between vigilante and villain. Renfield believes that, by murdering the narcissists who destroy others, he is somehow setting himself free. However, at the same time, there are those amongst the police force who want to bring criminals to justice. Behind the badge, there’s a belief that criminals must serve their time to pay their debt to society. But, as the fight to keep the bad guys behind bars becomes more difficult, there are an increasing number of those who seem just as happy to see them devoured. In these moments, while it does so with a wink, Renfield bites into a much larger conversation about whether or not violence is the way to truly kill the monsters in our world or if something else is required.

Awkwafina as Rebecca in Renfield, directed by Chris McKay.

Although the physical disc release is fairly scant, Renfield does look good on its Blu-Ray release. The animation continues to be fun and the blood splatters pop. However, the best inclusion on this disc is its feature commentary with producer Samantha Nisenboim, screenwriter Ryan Ridley and the film’s crew. Commentaries that provide insight into the world of any film are always welcome and Renfield‘s penchant for historical visuals makes it definitely worth discussing.

While it won’t appeal to everyone, Renfield has enough humour and heart to keep it entertaining. By keeping the emphasis on Hoult, the film ensures that its metaphor for toxic codependency remains front and centre. And, frankly, that story remains the true power of this film. Yes, the film has buckets of blood and dark humour, but the true soul of this film is in its heard for freedom. Because of that message of hope, this vision of Dracula doesn’t suck.

Renfield is available on Blu-Ray and DVD on Tuesday, July 11th, 2023.

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