Panic Fest 2023: Renfield offers viscera and vicious fun in equal measures

Still Renfield 2

Renfield. // Courtesy Universal Pictures

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023. Read more from our film team here.

For years Universal has fought a seemingly losing battle when it comes to finding the right avenue to modernize its stable of classic monsters. The studio’s history is intrinsically tied to the likes of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and of course, the prince of darkness himself, Dracula. 

Whether the historical action route (Dracula Untold), putting a fanboy behind the camera (2010’s Joe Johnston-directed The Wolfman), or adding Tom Cruise to the mix (2017’s The Mummy), nothing has worked. Chris McKay’s Renfield, the latest attempt, suggests that mixing action comedy and horror may be the most potent combo. That and letting Nicolas Cage run wild with a flamboyant wardrobe. Told from the point-of-view of Dracula’s assistant Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) the movie is a little uneven, but still delightful.

After years of fighting various vampire hunters and traipsing across the globe from hideout to hideout, Renfield and Dracula (Cage at his Cage-iest) arrive in New Orleans, a city brimming with nightlife and crime. They set up shop in the catacombs of Charity Hospital, a real building abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. Given their dwindling finances and Dracula’s much-needed R&R after a nasty dust-up with daylight, they could do worse. 

For Renfield though, the new change of scenery leaves him wanting more from his meager existence. He starts attending a Co-Dependents Anonymous support group in the hopes of helping his master source food by ridding his groupmates of their abusive significant others. However, he starts to see that the freedom he’s longing for may be within reach. Finally, there’s a chance to leave his troubled past behind, as well as superhuman abilities that manifest when he eats bugs (that part might be harder to shake off).

Renfield’s not the only one looking to escape a situation with a stranglehold on their life.

Police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) is the only clean cop in a hugely corrupt department. She’s got an axe to grind against the Lobos, the local drug cartel that murdered her father, a legendary cop in the department. As luck should have it, events conspire to cause Quincy, Renfield, Dracula, and the Lobos to collide, in a battle not only for New Orleans but the fate of mankind itself.

Anyone coming to see Renfield is likely doing so for one reason: Cage’s Dracula.

Whatever you imagine that would look like, multiply it by a factor of 10. Cage devours the scenery with as much gusto as his character drains arteries. However, he also adds a bit of cunning, fearmongering, and manipulation courtesy of screenwriter Ryan Ridley’s tight script. This Dracula is the king of toxic relationships, and he’s looking to expand his horizons in his new digs. 

In addition to Cage’s performance, what helps set Renfield apart from countless other horror comedies is its relentless, gore-soaked action. Hoult impresses with acrobatic stunts, but Renfield wisely brings Awkwafina in on battles too. She’s her normal charming, jokey self, but can also back up her claim that she was the “top of her cadet class.”

Cage, Hoult and Awkwafina are supplemented by a strong supporting cast including Ben Schwartz as a mama’s boy druglord, and Shohreh Aghdashloo as his stern, menacing mom.

To say there’s a metric ton of digital and practical blood spilled in these sequences is an understatement. Limbs are torn asunder and used as projectile weapons. Bodies are eviscerated, decapitated, and drained of fluid in graphic detail. In an early fight, Renfield ends a guy with a serving tray, and the resulting spray hits Old Faithful-levels. 

Any time a studio produces a film like Renfield, it feels like they do so with one eye closed. Either the cast is shoddy, the budget is minuscule or there’s a revolving door of writers and directors just trying to pump out content. This isn’t that and thank goodness. The film has its share of issues, but they’re relatively minor comparted to the ingenuity and sense of fun on display. Renfield truly offers something for everyone. Action fans get some brutal set pieces. Horror hounds get buckets of blood and some fun nods to the 1931 Dracula. Comedy fans will giggle delightedly at the rapid-fire jokes. If that doesn’t sound like a good time at the movies, then nothing is.

Featured Renfield Look Inside Featurette

Renfield. // Courtesy Universal Pictures

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023. Read more from our film team here.

Categories: Movies