If you think your boss is evil, try being Dracula’s familiar. Meet Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated familiar who has been working for Dracula (Nic Cage) for decades. Released in theaters on April 14th of this year, Renfield follows the titular character, whose involvement in a 12-step self help support group for people in codependent relationships inspires him to seek out a better life away from his overbearing employer.
The film opens up with some archival footage from the 1931 Dracula movie as Renfield explains that he was originally a real estate lawyer, and decided to become Dracula’s familiar to provide a better future for him and his family. Renfield ultimately abandons his wife and child to enter a life of servitude for the next 90 years, and is given powers of super strength and immortality from Dracula through consuming various kinds of bugs. As additional “payment” for serving him, Dracula’s blood also heals any wounds that Renfield incurs, on which Renfield says, “I suppose this is what we call my healthcare plan”.
After Dracula is burnt to a crisp—his charred body being both unnerving and hilarious at the same time—and weakened significantly by members of the Catholic Church, he and Renfield take refuge in a dilapidated hospital. Now living in present-day New Orleans, Renfield finds himself at a codependent relationship support group, which inspires him to begin hunting the people that are causing his fellow support group members grief, saying he’s getting “rid of their monsters to give mine what he needs”. The final straw is when Dracula reveals to Renfield that he has plans of world domination, which drives Renfield to tell the support group that he “needs to get out of a toxic relationship.” Renfield opens up at the support group about his struggles at “work”, and he is encouraged to leave his “narcissistic boss” behind and aim for a happier, simpler life.
This film has been likened to the popular FX show What We Do in the Shadows, which also explores the topic of a vampire familiar that becomes increasingly unhappy with his treatment by his master. Renfield also continues a trend of classic literary characters that weren’t afforded much character development in their source material, but are now being fleshed out (such as the Rosaline film from last year).
Renfield has tons of gore, securing it a hefty R-rating. There’s lots of killing, dismemberment, and blood. At one point, Renfield even cuts a man’s arms off using a decorative serving platter, and later on there’s a Mortal Kombat-style X-Ray attack. Admittedly, the special effects are borderline goofy and Twilight-esque, since they’re slightly lower quality compared to other big budget horror films, but this film being a comedy makes up for it a bit.
Eventually, Renfield accidentally becomes entangled in the strife between the notoriously ruthless, violent Lobo (“wolf” in Spanish and Portuguese, get it?) crime family and a young female police officer named Rebecca Quincy (aptly named after Dracula character Quincey Morris and played by Awkwafina). Rebecca is out for revenge against the Lobos, and wants them to finally face the consequences of their many illegal actions. Particularly, the spoiled heir Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), who is even caught with dozens of bags of cocaine after committing several traffic violations and gets off scot-free.
For those that may be wondering, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on its source material, which is to its benefit, since it never feels too stiff or unoriginal. Besides Renfield’s penchant for eating bugs, the similarities between him and his literary counterpart seem to end there. In the original Dracula novel, Renfield was a deranged man that was kept in an asylum and prone to violent outbursts, being monitored by Dr. John Seward. He played a pivotal role in Dracula turning Lucy Westenra into a vampire, and in luring Dracula to Mina Harker to do the same to her. On the flip side, the Renfield in this film is a kind and gentle man that, like Rebecca Quincy, also has a strong sense of justice and a deep willingness to be a hero to humanity.
Renfield has been given a full name of Robert Montague Renfield, which he didn’t have in the original novel, as he was only ever referred to as R.M. Renfield. He is also physically younger than his book counterpart, who was noted by Dr. Seward as being 59 years old. While the Renfield in Dracula fed bugs to birds to consume more “life-force”, and was denied a cat by the asylum so that he wouldn’t eat it, this new portrayal has no desire to move up in the food chain. Renfield is very different from the book version of the character, he is neither insane nor completely fanatically devoted to his master. While the Renfield in Dracula has come to represent how evil can grow in a person, the Renfield in Renfield represents how goodness can grow in a person.
Nic Cage as Dracula is a fantastic sight, and he nails being terrifying while also being humorous. Nic Cage’s Dracula is reminiscent of Bela Lugosi’s in terms of general appearance, but acting-wise, Cage plays less into the “charming” Dracula stereotype and more into the “downright terrifying” one, with sickly-looking, marked skin and razor-sharp teeth. Cage as Dracula is intimidating, domineering, and the perfect amount of theatrical.
The comedic aspects are so effective in that they rely heavily on the bizarreness of Renfield and Dracula’s relationship and common vampire tropes, such as Dracula entering Renfield’s studio apartment simply because of Renfield’s ‘Welcome! Come on in!’ welcome mat. When he enters Renfield’s apartment and Renfield tells him that he “will no longer tolerate abuse” and that he deserves happiness, Dracula laughs in his face and says, “Let me explain something to you, ‘kay? You deserve only suffering!” He becomes a boogey-man of sorts to Renfield, as he can communicate with Renfield telepathically (no matter the distance). He’s the definition of controlling and narcissistic.
Renfield was directed by Chris McKay, who is best known for directing and editing three seasons of Robot Chicken and two seasons of Moral Orel. Anyone familiar with these Adult Swim shows understands that McKay is no stranger to dark humor, and that is evident from the beginning of this comedy horror film. At one point, Dracula is displeased with the bodies that Renfield has brought him, telling Renfield that he would much more prefer a school bus full of cheerleaders. In a later scene, Renfield is at a New Orleans bar/restaurant, and what happens to coincidentally roll up? A school bus full of cheerleaders.
If you don’t mind tons of gore, this film is a must-watch for any monster and/or vampire movie fanatic, or anyone that just loves a good comedy horror film.
You can see Renfield in theaters for a limited time.