Eye For Film >> Movies >> Renfield (2023) Film Review
Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson
Renfield, the character, is believed to have taken his name from the street in Glasgow. It was named by one Archibald Campbell, after his estate. That's a toponym, the -field pretty obvious, but 'ren-' is from either the Scots Gaelic or the Welsh, meaning point (as in teeth) or cape (as in fabulous).
Stoker's novel is one of the most filmed works, one of the first adapted to film, one of the first to be part of a copyright dispute. He had a background in theatre, and the Pavilion still stands. There are cinemas too, or at least the bones of one and the intermittently nearly bankrupt tower of another. It was in one of these that I was finally able to catch Renfield in a late night screening.
Which was, variously, perfect. This isn't a serious film, indeed it is in places very silly indeed, but it is fun. It wasn't just the presence of Nicolas Cage in a succession of outfits that reminded me of seeing Prisoners Of The Ghostland in London's Prince Charles Cinema. Though I saw it in a mainstream picturehouse this had the feel of the fleapit, cult classic written all over it.
I believe it was roleplaying game author David J Prokopetz who first advanced the thesis that Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal Lecter (from the somewhat eponymous NBC show) was "not a vampire, but... is absolutely a dracula." Borrowing from that, media journalist Asher Elbein suggested on Twitter that "The thing that makes the John Wick movies conceptually fun is how hard they leaned into the inciting incident being -- essentially -- "oops, you just carjacked Dracula".
Dracula is an idea. An inescapable one perhaps. I've a thesis that Michael Mann's Manhunter is a parallel to Dracula. It has the novel's reliance on modernity, on things like electric lights and train timetables, the supernatural and the scientific, the forensic and the foreign. Except with Lektor [sic] in gaol it's Renfield being hunted. Here it's more haunted, physically, psychically, cyclically.
I mention other draculae because Nicolas Cage isn't playing one of them. He might be playing all of them. Think, for a moment, of Dracula. Who are you picturing? What hammers in your heart? What is at stake?
There's some fabulous production and costume design, not least when Nicholas Hoult's Renfield goes through a pastel phase. As a conflicted ally, Awkwafina's New Orleans cop manages to find a line between Texan gunslinger and Dutch doctor and make it sing. Among the various powers and restrictions upon The Count is liaison with wolves, and Tedward (Ben Schwartz) and Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) are part of a pack of references.
Renfield in the novel did fight. He's not the doormat often depicted, nor the cinematically psychological sufferer of latter versions. Hoult makes him earnest, likeable, damnable too. Every once in a while I think about the distortions to the story that mean that there's a novelisation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, written by Fred Saberhagen based on James V Hart's screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola's film. The story is in the telling, and Renfield re-tells the story variously, vicariously, viciously.
New Orleans has its own ties to vampiric mythos, all antebellum and fin-de-siecle and imperial ambition. "L'É(s)tat, c'est moi" isn't that Louis' line, but there's plenty of successors. The primary goal is to occupy a swamp, nightlife and various forms of corruption, if not outright decadence. Sometimes you need an abandoned hospital.
Chris McKay directed The Lego Batman Movie, but here he works in colours other than black and very very dark grey. Hues pop, lurid, Ryan Ridley (various comedy TV, arch metatext Our RoboCop Remake), Robert Kirkman (various comic-based TV) and Ava Tramer (other animated TV, including Duncanville) all have writing credits here. Their other works often have explicit references (both senses) to other works themselves, and Renfield definitely benefits from familiarity with the oeuvre.
That isn't only vampire movies though, but a swath of what one might call B-movies if those distinctions still mattered. These include nods in the form of typography, cinematography, even the credits. Which contain within them a suggestion that sequences filmed didn't make the final cut, which themselves suggest the kind of messy production that is in and of itself a genre feature.
Fight sequences verge on the (entertainingly) ludicrous, the impact of superpowers on reality has the same signature as Hancock, the curve of Wanted. Reality has an edge too, traffic stops are tinged with deeper colour lines than red and blue. Though Hoult is as oddly charming as his abilities allow, Nicolas goes as close to the Full Cage as I've seen in a while. New Orleans might bring it out in him, Renfield is by some measure a bad lieutenant but Dracula's a terrible employer.
By various means, including a slightly stilted voiceover, Renfield sets out its stall, its rules, and then plays within them. That's a requirement of genre movies in both horror and escape, and as a slice of escapist comedy horror it's not so much that they're here in spades as that they're here with spades, and more than willing to dig in. One advantage of spiders over chickens is that eight folk can have a drumstick. If you've an appetite for it, there's a feast here.Reviewed on: 03 Jun 2023