Writer Ryan Ridley’s “Renfield” is a campily gory, deeply and densely pop psychological battle between darkness and light, dependency and narcissism. Nicolas Cage is the legendary Transylvanian vampire, Dracula, but the focus of this film which is based on an idea by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman is on Robert Montague Renfield, the count’s bug-eating buddy. Director Chris McKay (“Robot Chicken” and “The Lego Batman Movie”) goes after the gore with gusto. Head and limbs will fly, flies will be eaten and F-bombs won’t be the only thing that explodes.
While much has been made of the psycho-sexual aspects of our cinematic (and literary) obsession with vampires, this vampire scenario is different. While Dracula may ask for Renfield for “a handful of nuns, a busload of cheerleaders,” he reminds his servant, “Don’t make it a sexual thing.”
Renfield began as an English real estate agent, hoping to make a financial killing only to become the staff of one in charge of literally killing due to Dracula’s “special dietary requirements.” There have been times when he could have allowed his famous master to die, but was convinced otherwise. When battles against good have resulted in some devastating physical degeneration, Dracula requires time to recuperate. During those “transitional periods,” Renfield has much more time on his own, but he’s still gathering victims for his favorite vampire. Dracula needs blood and particularly innocent victims help him regain his youthful ghoulish appearance, but what does Renfield need? “I just want a normal life again, but this modern world is a dangerous place.”
This time, they two have ended up in New Orleans. The count is recuperating in a deserted multi-floor hotel in a darkened dilapidated section that is now decorated with candles and hanging blood bags curtains. Call it gore grunge gone gothic.
While Renfield is searching the count’s dinner, he decides to do something for himself. He beginning attending self-help dependency anonymous meetings (DRAAG or Dependent Relationships Addiction Anonymous Group?). He’s been hesitant to share the exact nature of his dependency relationship, but in his own way, he’s helping his fellow anonymous co-dependency sufferers. He’s planning to serve them for dinner, starting with a certain low level drug dealer. Unfortunately, this one has stolen the goods from a large organized gang and the son of the top dog, Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz), has sent in his goons.
For this cinematic world, Renfield gets superpowers with each crunch of a bug and can beat up the bad guys with spectacular gory gusto. After the head of one of the goons (a masked Marcus Lewis as Apache Joe) flies smack into Teddy’s car, Teddy takes off and gets stopped at the DUI checkpoint by Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina).
Renfield doesn’t leave this inter-gang battle unscathed. Yet, even when he’s literally spilling his guts, he has a better health plans than most Americans. Dracula’s blood has curative powers. But the count is still hungry.
Teddy’s run in with the law is easily resolved. Although Rebecca has a personal grudge against the Lobos, the Lobos have money and many cops are on their payroll. Teddy is sprung, but reporting back to his mom, Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Teddy has a fantastical story. This leads to a bloody human meat-flying cute-meet between Rebecca, Renfield and Teddy along with a busload of cheerleaders and a table of nuns at a local bar.
Rebecca says, “Thank you. You saved my life. Did I just watch you cut a guy with a decorative platter?”
Renfield replies, “It’s all in the wrist.”
The needs of the Lobos, Renfield and Dracula will collide and considerable collateral damage will ensue. Even the members of the self-help group will find themselves at the center of a vampiric rampage when Dracula realizes they have filled Renfield with sunny, brightly colored visions of his future. Mark (Brandon Scott Jones), the dependency group leader, tells Renfield, “This is co-dependency 101. A narcissist will take full advantage of a codependents’ low self-esteem, but you’re the one with the real power and all you’ve got to do is take it back.” Of course, Mark has no idea that vampires exist and that cutting ties with one’s vampire master isn’t as easy as blocking a cellphone number and social media links.
Director McKay styles narrative flashbacks to pay homage to old Dracula films and the gore is quick and funny; the real focus is on the character development of Renfield and despite Awkwafina’s signature slouch, McKay clearly signals romance between the honest traffic cop and the centuries Renfield. Hoult and Awkwafina have a goofy, friendship-falling-into romantic partnership possibility chemistry. A sequel that played with the chemistry between the two and the third-wheel traffic cop partner Chris (Adrian Martinez) might be fun.
For diversity, besides Chinese-Korean American Awkwafina, the cast features Ben Schwartz who is Jewish, 70-year-old, Tehran-born Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, Camille Chan as Kate, Nicaraguan and Dominican Latino actor Adrian Martinez, African American James Moses Black as Rebecca’s superior, Captain Browning and a masked Marcus Lewis (stuntman for “Black Panther”) as Apache Joe.
It should be noted that in Romania, feelings about Count Dracula are totally different. According to the Romania Tourism website, “many Romanians to this day view Vlad Tepes as a hero for his fierce insistence on honesty and order.” Bram Stoker was inspired by Vlad Tepes who was born in 1428. His father, Vlad Dracul as the military governor of Transylvania and a member of the Order of the Dragon–a military and religious organization established in Rome to promote Catholic interests. Dracula translates into “son of Dracul.” The Romanian word dracul means both dragon and devil in English according to RomanciaTourism.com.
Political detractors and Saxon merchants, unhappy with the new trade regulations imposed by Vlad, did everything they could to blacken his reputation. They produced and disseminated throughout Western Europe exaggerated stories and illustrations about Vlad’s cruelty.
According to Britannica, Vlad III Dracula was the voivode (military governor or prince of Walachia–a historical region of Romania–three times (1448; 1456-1462; 1476). He died at age 45 in battle. He was “a folk hero in the region for his efforts against Ottoman encroachment.” The historic son of Dracul, never owned any land in Transylvania and never took residence at Bran Castle.
Remember, the Muslim-led Ottoman Empire rose against the Christian Byzantine state and lasted from 1300 to 1922. Today’s Romania is about 86% Christian Orthodox.
If you can put history aside, “Renfield” is gorrific fun. Nicolas Cage chews up the scenery and spits out bloody narratives of narcissism while Nicholas Hoult’s Renfield finds his inner hero after being lovestruck with Awkwafina’s honest cop. It’s Law & (Dis)Order gone to camp with a slouching, gun-slinging cop as Renfield’s love interest.
“Renfield” was released in the US on 14 April 2023. The film made its world premiere on 30 March 2023 at the Overlook Film Festival.