'Renfield' Review: Nicolas Cage Does What He Does Best

Here’s a hot take: Nicolas Cage is a fascinating actor. Controversial, I know. His body of work is, of course, unassailable, but with Cage, it’s as much about methodology as it is about the performances themselves. Phrases like “nouveau shamanism” have entered the lexicon not as a punchline but out of an earnest desire for actor and moviegoers to create a dialogue about performance. We love watching Cage talk about method because he is so rarely naturalistic onscreen but always, sometimes inexplicably, in perfect alignment with the material. And if any of this rings true to you, hoo boy, will you love what Cage does with Dracula in Chris McKay’s “Renfield.”

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It’s been more than a century since dreams of real estate riches led Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) into the waiting arms of Count Dracula (Cage), but the years have not been kind to the two men. Caught in an endless cycle of destruction and rebirth, master and servant have retreated to an abandoned hospital in New Orleans as Dracula recovers from his last run-in with vampire hunters. To pass the time, Renfield has started attending group meetings on codependency, finding comfort in how awful others are treated by those closest to them.

In fact, Renfield finds so much comfort in the process that he has begun to seek out the abusers of other attendees as food for his master. But when one particular intervention puts him in the crosshairs of both dedicated New Orleans police officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) and the idiot son (Ben Schwartz) of a local crime family, Renfield starts to struggle with to wean himself off the power that Dracula has granted him. Especially when Dracula takes a malevolent interest in the people around him.

The risk for a film like “Renfield” is that it ends up feeling like a Max Landis screenplay: fantasy and superhuman action sequences filtered through a puerile sense of humor. And to be fair, some of that is present. “Renfield” has its fair share of easy jokes – any movie with actors like Awkwafina and Ben Schwartz will revel a little bit in improvisational humor – but there’s also a filmic quality to the best jokes that keeps the material elevated. One early gag about ska is woven into three separate scenes, which allows the jokes to expand beyond the confines of dialogue to the benefit of the overall film.

“Renfield” also walks a charmingly broad line between cartoonish violence and genuine horror aesthetics. For the most part, the action in “Renfield” leads to fountains of bright red blood. Hoult – in a lifelong battle with Daniel Radcliffe to be our most reluctant leading man – is both a capable action star and the perfect straight man for material like this. But McKay and company also lean into ‘80s production design in a few key sequences, offering a surprisingly grotesque portrayal of Dracula in his various stages of recovery. While contemporary horror is still overly obsessed with the 1980s, at least “Renfield” remembers that the most notable examples of horror-comedies were trying their damndest to succeed in both genres.

If the film offered only colorful violence and a few good gags, that would be enough to keep it from sinking to the unforgettable depths of modernizations like “I, Frankenstein.” But it is impossible to separate the core elements of “Renfield” from what Nicolas Cage is doing as an actor. From one of the first moments we hear him speak – recreating Bela Lugosi’s delightful line reading about not drinking wine from the original “Dracula” – Cage is in the finest possible form. His performance is an overt attempt to combine the many versions of Dracula we’ve seen throughout history. In doing so, Cage creates a character that feels both timeless and wonderfully of the moment. It’s also the actor at his most unapologetically maximalist. Pour one out for the entertainment editors of the world who will frantically need to update their lists of the best Nic Cage performances.

In Cage’s hands, Dracula is the perfect marriage between the rock star and the jilted lover. The film’s highlight is a scene where Dracula confronts Renfield in the latter’s apartment after Renfield has decided to cut ties with his master. Dracula is mocking and furious, but Cage plays the scene with the manic energy of someone not emotionally mature enough to process their sense of betrayal. On the one hand, it is vintage Cage; on the other hand, it brings Dracula into a contemporary setting without affording him any softness or humanity. Monsters can get their feelings hurt, too, and only Cage could create a monster who has human emotions but no humanity.

Even if we don’t overly connect with the personal growth stories of either Renfield or Rebecca, thanks to Cage, “Renfield” is the rare horror-comedy to find the balance between respect and playful irreverence. Tone can be everything in genre cinema; miss the mark by even a little bit, and a good concept suddenly becomes unwatchable. The only real shame of “Renfield” is that the film does not find even more room for cinematic recreations of other Dracula movies. Hell, if Gus Van Sant can make a shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho,” maybe Universal can find the money for their own remake of “Dracula.” It has to perform better than the Dark Universe, right? [B]