Now streaming–Nic Cage goes full Nic Cage in brilliant Universal Monsters entry, Renfield

Review by C.J. Bunce

Everything is better with Nicolas Cage.  Also… Everything is better with Awkwafina.  These are two truths that come together in a brilliant addition to Universal Monsters canon called Renfield, now streaming on Peacock.  Nicolas Cage perfectly summons Bela Legosi’s Count Dracula in a performance that runs circles around Jack Nicholson’s Joker and the last “go big or go home” Dracula, Gary Oldman’s from 30 years ago.  And the story has plenty of room for a heroine and a superhero, a good cop played by Awkwafina and Nicholas Hoult as a troubled Dracula sidekick with Bruce Lee superhero mad skills.  In short, Renfield has it all.

The Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay takes the Universal Monster movie (which began 100 years ago with Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) back to its roots, which means a perfectly evil monster and also, as in later films, some crowd-pleasing comedy, as seen in five Abbott and Costello crossovers.  McKay taps the right elements to update this Dracula story, as so many monster movies have done less effectively.  So you can put this up there with John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man (not an actual UM movie) or Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (not an actual UM movie), An American Werewolf in London (not an actual UM movie), and the first Brendan Fraser The Mummy (an actual UM movie).  It even features a 1930s black and white snippet of Cage and Hoult in a vintage monster movie scene. But its dark vibe has elements in common with The Crow, too, like moves for Hoult that look like they were choreographed by Iko Uwais.

Nicholas Hoult’s Renfield is the ultimate put-upon character.  He’s a victim, but he’s complicit in his role as servant and majordomo of the one and only Dracula, which all the characters in this story are fully aware of like we audience members.  Dracula made him his “familiar” while Renfield was trying to negotiate a real estate deal in Wallachia many, many years ago.

The audience learns upfront that Dracula sometimes loses just as he wins, and we see him burnt to (graphic) ashes as he seeks to kill (and eat) innocent people, who are evidently more nutritious than baddies.  It’s Renfield’s job, time and time again, to help him recuperate to his full strength.  But the PTSD of watching–and being forced into participating in–murders, beheadings, bodies bursting, torn off appendages, etc. has led Renfield to join a self-help group.

Ghosts series’ brilliant actor Brandon Scott Jones plays their therapist (he’s just as funny without the Revolutionary War guise).  Dracula is powerful and a true real-world villain, ordering Renfield to deliver happy tourists, a busload of cheerleaders, or a handful of nuns.  When Renfield witnesses Officer Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) stand up to the mobster who killed her father, he’s inspired to leave Dracula once and for all.  The mobster is second-in-command of the local crime family, the Lobos, played by Parks & Recreation’s Ben Schwartz, a perfect match of over-the-top crazy to Cage’s performance (his mom the boss is played by The Expanse’s Shohreh Aghdashloo).

Universal and McKay miss some opportunities to lean into the Universal Monsters pantheon and set-up future movies.  Lobos is Spanish for wolves, as seen in all the mob family’s symbolism, which seemed an obvious segue to a Wolfman appearance, which never comes to pass.  McKay also struggles to balance real-world issues of codependence and victim safety as a theme or mere MacGuffin.  There’s lots of fun to be had here despite the gravity of some of the issues the director weaves through.

Is Renfield a superhero movie?  Renfield gains superpowers like Brandon Lee’s Crow when he… eats bugs.  For Hoult, this is a pretty good screen test as he becomes a favorite to play the next big-screen Superman.  We even get to seem him soar into the sky.  But no special effect beats Cage exploding into a swarm of bats.  Wow.  Awkwafina gets to be a badass again, too, as an ambitious cop stuck in a situation something like Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz.

Renfield is the servant of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s original 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula, which brings some credibility to this story.  This movie is just the kind of film to appeal to kids who love monster movies (kids of all ages, except little ones), but note it’s not slasher horror, despite lots of explosions of blood.  So don’t expect it to approach the kind of movie villain violence of Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers–but Dracula still kills several innocents in one disconcerting scene.

Cage knows exactly how to maximize his screentime, to create a monster and embody a role in his own way, but also one you can imagine Lon Chaney, Jr. would absolutely love.  His attention to detail and his own ability to make movie magic is why Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse will never be surpassed.  It will be difficult to look on monster movies in the future without putting this Dracula up there with Legosi’s.  This is also the Dracula Kim Newman writes about in his Anno Dracula series.

Has Nicolas Cage ever made a bad movie?  Maybe so, but he certainly gives everything to every role, and his choice are unique.  Our favorite may be his voice work as Spider-Man Noir in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, but also look at classics like Raising Arizona, Honeymoon in Vegas, National Treasure, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, cool sci-fi like Knowing and Next, underrated superhero films like Kick-Ass and Ghost Rider.  Nicholas Hoult’s big roles include the younger Beast in the X-Men movies, Mad Max: Fury Road, and recent hits The Menu and The Current War.  Awkwafina has mastered the comedic actor career with her own TV series, Nora from Queens, and major hits Raya and the Last Dragon, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Jumanji: The Next Level, and Ocean’s 8.  You couldn’t hope for a better cast in a movie like this.  Supporting cast members also to watch for include Stumptown’s Adrian Martinez as Officer Quincy’s partner, and Law & Order’s Camille Chen as her sister, the police chief.

More Cage as Dracula, please!  (And a sequel with werewolf Lobos!)  Renfield with Nosferatu and the 1931 Dracula would make a great drive-in theater lineup.  Don’t miss Renfield It’s now streaming on Peacock.

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