Review by Mike Finkelstein
There is probably no more famous version of Count Dracula than the version played by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film, Dracula. Oh, sure, Nosferatu is probably a close second, although that's more because of the look of the creature than anything else, but when you think of Dracula you likely think of Lugosi. He's iconic in the role and he helped define the whole Universal Monsters era for the studio. Every Dracula film from Universal struggled to recapture the magic of that film and Lugosi's performance.
To it's credit, the new Universal Dracula film, Renfield doesn't even try to stick to the same tone or genre. It knows chasing the legacy of Dracula is a pipe dream. Instead, it warps itself into a horror comedy that plays with the ideas of the vampire genre without necessarily ignoring everything that came before. It even acts, functionally, as a sequel to the 1931 film and, basically, every Dracula movie to come after. It works because it's a love letter to Universal's famous monster. It's not perfect, but it is fun, and for fans of Dracula and the horror genre, it absolutely has its heart in the right place.
Renfield focuses on Renfield, the long-suffering assistant to Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage). Renfield traveled to Dracula's castle nearly a hundred years ago for a land deal and, almost immediately, was lured in by the Count's promises. Ever since he's been immortal, possessed with a hint of Dracula's power, and serving at the vampire's beck and call. Every few years, after Dracula is discovered by vampire hunters and nearly killed, Renfield and Dracula move to a new city where Renfield attends to his master, bringing the vampire the victims the Count needs so he can heal. Then, a restored Dracula gets mad with power, goes on countless blood benders, attracts unwanted attention, and the vampire hunters come. Thus the cycle begins again.
Now, in 2023, they've moves to New Orleans, staying in a dilapidated and abandoned hospital. Dracula, manged and damaged, demands innocent victims from Renfield, and the poor assist has to go out to find them despite not wanting to kill anyone innocent. Renfield has been prowling around an abuse support group, claiming the abusers of these victims, hoping their blood would sate Dracula. It does not. So Renfield goes back out to find real innocents. Instead he gets caught up with police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who has her own issues she's working on. She's been tracking the Lobo Cartel, specifically Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz) and his mother Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo). When the Lobos come to kill Officer Quincey, Renfield eats a bug (to charge up his power) and steps in to protect her. Suddenly hes a hero and, through the officer, learns he doesn't have to be an evil assistant. But you can bet Dracula won't take this change from his assistant lying down (in his coffin).
As a comedy, Renfield gets a fair bit of mileage out of the title character's suffering. He's a put-upon assistant, a repeatedly kicked puppy stuck in an awful relationship with his "boss". He goes to that support group and eventually decides to share about himself. These moments -- him talking about Dracula, dealing with Dracula, getting ignored by Dracula -- provide the best laughs of the film. If the film could have just been the two of them it might have been an absolute laugh riot, with Hoult's Renfield playing straight man to the devilishly (evil and) funny Dracula.
it is worth noting that Cage's Dracula is fantastic. The actor clearly studied Lugosi's performance and e has absolute glee inhabiting that role. He plays the count with scenery-chewing perfection, practically raising the performance to Face/Off levels of glee. He inhabits the role and makes it wold and weird and over-the-top. I love it. I would watch him as Dracula again and again.
This issue is that, in the midst of this pretty good comedy about a codependent relationship, the film decided to re-craft Renfield into a superhero as well. There's a lot of talk about what it means to be a hero, to do the right thing, to use your powers for good. You can practically envision a moment where Renfield eats a spider and then Uncle Ben comes out to say, "with great power comes great responsibility." The arc for Renfield isn't just to reject Dracula and learn to stand up for himself but also for him to become a superhero. Everything in this modern era (at least in 2023 at the time of this writing) still apparently has to be about superheroes.
Now, don't get me wrong, the film can mine some laughs from the superhero antics. Any time Renfield unleashes his power and goes ham on some bad guys, it's delightful. The film leans into is R rating by cranking out absolute gallons of blood on screen. Sure, it's all CGI blood and looks a little fake, but that still plays to the comedic nature of it. If you can watch a film where a man gets split in half but a super-powered vampire familiar and laugh at it, this film has the right level of gore and action for you.
Really, I think the issue is that outside of the horror elements the film doesn't really know what to do with itself. It feels the need to redeem Renfield, to have him earn his superhero credentials. He sticks him with Officer Quincey, a pretty bland character without any humor or joy in her. For a comedy of this nature, a character like Rebecca stand out for how boring she is. Awkwafina tries as best as she can to add some life to her part, but Quincey is stuck on a trope-riddled plot line that goes exactly where you expect in the most direct and tired way possible. The bits with Renfield and Dracula are the best while Rebecca's story is what holds this film back from true greatness.
But even then the film does find ways to add some balls-out glee to the proceedings. Rebecca's story and Renfield's join early on, and once all the pieces are in place, it leads to a pretty big climax. Bugs are eaten, blood is spilled, bodies are torn apart, and the film manages to up the antics just enough to keep everything interesting. It's still very much a superhero climax, so it feels weirdly limited in what it's comfortable having the characters do (since they're supposed to be heroes) but there's fun to be had in the moments.
I really just wish this film could have leaned harder into the Renfield and Dracula story while not even bothering with the cop tale at all. That side feels like padding while Renfield going out and finding a life of his own -- a support group, an apartment, pink sweaters -- is fantastic. His battling Dracula for the fate of his new life is stakes alone such that we don't need a drug cartel and a police storyline thrown in. That's all distraction from Renfield and Dracula.
There is a perfect movie lurking somewhere in the final product, this movie just doesn't nail it. It's fun, and funny, and worth a watch, though. If it can kick-start a new Dracula series, I would continue showing up for it. More likely this will just be a weird one-off as Universal tries to find some way to make their monsters stick with audiences again. This is a fun, if flawed movie, but don't let that keep you from watching it. There are joys to be had, and gouts of blood to be enjoyed, even if one storyline in the film is blander than the rest.