Renfield Is a Superhero Movie for People Tired of Superhero Movies
Ok, fine, Renfield really is more than just Nicolas Cage going full ham as the Prince of Darkness, it also has Nicholas Hoult as the titular, long-suffering Renfield, whose toxic relationship with his boss bears some re-examining. Needless to say, working for an undead, bloodsucking fiend is bound to have complications, but it does come with some perks. Namely, Renfield, the zoophagous lunatic from Stoker’s novel, has an unnaturally long life and gets superpowers from consuming insects. It’s a novel idea and the result is a wild and hilarious superhero movie that’s disguised as a horror comedy.
Don’t get me wrong, Renfield works perfectly fine as a horror comedy. But this Chris McKay-directed insanity is much, much more. There is a nuance and a multitude of layers to Renfield that is easy to dismiss because, well, Nicolas Cage playing Dracula is just so over-the-top bonkers and sidesplittingly hilarious that it can be the whole gimmick and still be entertaining. Thankfully, Renfield covers more ground and works on every level.
From one perspective, Renfield is a superhero movie. Universal Studios has been trying to make its own shared cinematic universe with its Universal Monsters a la the MCU but the dismal box office performance of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy drove a stake through the heart of that idea. So it’s a pleasant surprise that Renfield gains superhuman strength and preternatural speed when he snacks on a spider and starts dismembering bad guys. It’s bloody, it’s gory, and it’s entertaining as hell. If this is what the Dark Universe looks like, I want to see more.
McKay delivers action sequences that rival and even surpass some superhero movies, many of which have become one-note and formulaic. With Renfield, we have an accidental superhero whose crisis of conscience drives forms the crux of the story. Renfield’s compulsion to service the needs of his inhuman master was always at odds with his humanity and was always the tragedy that accompanied his horror. Stoker labeled it as insanity, but the story by Robert Kirkman and script by Ryan Ridley reframed Renfield’s struggle as codependency and it’s brilliant. When you’re the human giver to a powerful, supernatural taker, it can be a little more complicated to break the cycle.
Renfield’s turn to heroism comes when he finds a way to feed a convalescing undead lord (those pesky vampire hunters are such a hassle) with the abusive halves of the members of his codependency support group. Although Renfield is unable to break free of his own relationship, he decides to help others by ridding them of their abusers. It’s catharsis and vicarious freedom, and his motivation alone is already more nuanced than a number of superhero origins in movies.
Speaking of origins, Renfield’s backstory is a delightful flashback that utilizes the most iconic scenes from 1931’s Dracula while swapping out Bela Lugosi’s face for Nicolas Cage’s. It is very meta as it uses archived reels of the first sound adaptation of Dracula in a modern retelling and even keeps the aspect ratio for the flashback. This essentially makes Renfield the canonical sequel to the 1931 classic. It’s a cinephile’s treat and as an added bonus, Cage gets another Face Off moment, this time with Lugosi.
And then there’s Akwafina, who is a revelation. She plays traffic cop Rebecca Quincey, who is stuck issuing tickets to speeders because the rest of the New Orleans police department is on the take from the Lobo crime family. In a film where even Dracula himself is funny, Akwafina’s plays the serious foil to everyone else’s absurdity. It’s a refreshing change of pace for audiences used to seeing the actor as mere comic relief. In Renfield, everyone else is funny except Akwafina, whose badassery actually inspires the bug-eating familiar to stand up for himself.
Renfield’s plan to keep feeding Dracula the dregs of society goes awry when his master cottons on to the fact that he’s been getting scraps. He demands a gaggle of nuns or a busload of cheerleaders, not some misogynist druggie! To complicate matters, Renfield gets entangled with the city’s mobsters, led by an impeccably-dressed Shohreh Aghdashloo as the Lobo family matriarch, Bellafrancesca Lobo. Her dim-witted son Tedward (Ben Schwarz) has it out for Rebecca as she’s the only cop in the city with the guts to try and arrest him, so when he goes after her and Renfield intervenes, all hell breaks loose.
There’s so much to enjoy about Renfield. Cage is pure comedic gold and steals every scene he’s in. Of course he does. He’s Nic Cage. But the entire cast plays off each other extraordinarily well, even the bit parts from the self-help group to mobsters who get their arms ripped off. It’s an absurd world where people don’t question the existence of a blood-sucking vampire, so anything goes.
Renfield demonstrates how the superhero concept can survive in a post-MCU world: an abundance of pathos, a high level of self-reflection, and an actual hero's journey. It’s a bit on the nose, but when Renfield is made to understand the dynamics of power in a relationship, he literally becomes more powerful. But it’s a metaphor that makes sense in a film that, on the surface, is all about a dysfunctional relationship. Dracula’s abusive, narcissistic persona against Renfield’s low self-esteem and submissiveness sets the backdrop and context for all other connections in the film.
Stoker wrote Renfield as an allegory for how one tends to lose humanity in the quest for power and immortality, so it’s perfect that Renfield discovers true power while reclaiming his humanity in the film. The overarching theme of breaking the cycle of abuse and standing up to oppressors is present on multiple fronts, with Renfield leading the charge. That being said, as much as Renfield can withstand and welcome scrutiny and analysis, with multiple themes resolving in a satisfying conclusion, at the end of the day, it’s Nicolas Cage playing the hammiest Dracula of all time. That in itself is worth the price of admission.