With the notable exception of Leigh Whannell’s deeply disturbing The Invisible Man, recent attempts to reboot Universal’s squad of classic monsters have crashed and burned like the windmill at the end of James Whale’s Frankenstein. But with Tom Cruise’s high-pitched shriek still ringing in our ears from the nosediving plane in The Mummy (the metaphor writes itself), Renfield, spun around Dracula’s bug-eating familiar, proves there’s plenty more mashing yet to be done by these monsters.
Chris McKay’s film positions itself as a direct sequel to Universal’s 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi (some Zelig/Forrest Gump-like technical wizardry replaces Dwight Frye’s Renfield with Nicolas Hoult’s in flashbacks). The hook here is that Renfield is attending support-group sessions to unpick his co-dependent relationship with his narcissistic boss. ‘I will no longer tolerate abuse, I deserve love,’ he tells Dracula, played by Nicolas Cage as a cross between Lugosi’s Count and Wild at Heart’s flamboyant Sailor. ‘You deserve only suffering,’ Dracula replies.
The neatly knitted plot takes in traffic cops Rebecca (Awkwafina) and Chris (Adrian Martinez), Shohreh Aghdashloo’s mob boss Ella and a gang of drug dealers led by Ben Schwartz’s Teddy, with everybody comically mistaking everybody else: Ella thinks Renfield is a rival in ‘the five families’, and Dracula assumes Teddy is a vampire hunter assigned by the church. The crossfire is bloody. And Renfield, who wants only to settle into his new pastel-painted apartment, slip-slides in the middle of it all.
While it hardly stays with you like The Invisible Man, Renfield is a fun Friday night at the movies. Director McKay (The Tomorrow War, The Lego Batman Movie) keeps things flowing by making good use of Hoult’s droll delivery and the New Orleans locations, while the pixels never stop pumping when it comes to the CG blood. Drac attacks like The Flash with fangs, and he’s not the only one granted superhero capabilities: one slug of bug juice and Renfield has all the moves of John Wick. He can also punch people through walls; a burly brawl between a bunch of familiars belongs in The Matrix Reloaded. Or maybe not – someone’s arms are cut off with a decorative serving platter.
Renfield dishes several such pleasures. So when Dracula at one point cries ‘Let’s eat!’, you’d do well to get to the cinema and obey his command.