“Renfield” has fine, crafty actors in its corner. The reliable Nicolas Cage, a guy who always gives 110%, is in there, sprinkling delightful expressions of enthusiasm (“wooo!”) under his Dracula breath. Awkwafina plays an honest New Orleans cop amid a sea of corrupt, mobbed-up toadies, with her sharp instincts for both punchlines and heart-tugs. Throw in Nicholas Hoult as the title’s put-upon “familiar,” Renfield, and there you have it: the least lousy of the three recent Universal Pictures forays into wisecracking ultraviolence.
The earlier two in this particular movie cycle, “Violent Night” and “Cocaine Bear,” I kind of hated; the filmmaking wasn’t good enough to make sense of their heartwarming one minute, entrails the next approach to horror comedy. “Renfield” has a few laughs, at least. But if it were as much fun as its production stills, with Cage’s bejeweled and divinely decadent Dracula (he’s like a male Sally Bowles, with fangs) whooping it up with Hoult’s miserably exploited Renfield, we’d have the comic mayhem we deserve.
The idea here is that “Dracula” author Bram Stoker’s tasty side character, Renfield, who procures humans for their blood and for his master’s next meal, has had enough. What a way to make a living! Screenwriter Ryan Ridley introduces Renfield at a relationship support group where others discuss abusive husbands and manipulative partners. Renfield can relate, but he’s not ready to reveal just how difficult his last century has been, under the sway of his master.
“Renfield” brings these two to New Orleans, where the filmmaking tax incentives are irresistible. The script has a lot — far too much — to do with a powerful crime family’s manipulation of the cocaine market, along with most of the police department. Awkwafina plays an upright holdout against this corruption, whose father was killed by the criminal scum, and whose sister (Camille Chen, deserving of more) works for the FBI.
The crime story intermingles, bloodily, with the main story of how Renfield saves the cop’s life early on amid a brutal nightclub siege. All this is fine in theory. Some clever bits enliven the movie’s first third, including a flashback to how Dracula and Renfield met, depicted as black-and-white outtakes of a sort from Tod Browning’s 1931 Universal “Dracula.” The action takes over soon enough. And here is where plenty of other critics will give you different assessments of that action.
The massacres and decapitations and such are staged and photographed in a perpetual frenzy, with nervous geysers of blood, edited by three different editors with all six eyes on speed and none of them, apparently, with access to any medium-length takes. Filmmaking takes time and few films, or filmmakers, have enough of that time to map out anything of sustained visual interest. In “Renfield,” the look of the picture defaults to heavily saturated colors dressing up a series of drab interiors (church basement, Renfield’s rental apartment), as the primary beats lurch from splatterfest to splatterfest. Only a motel killing spree — Hoult and Awkwafina vs. underworld goons — comes with a payoff, and only because Awkwafina is a stealth wizard, turning a passable zinger into gold.
Clearly, there’s an appetite for evisceration with a side of snark. Both “Violent Night” and “Cocaine Bear” did pretty well in theaters, at a precarious time for theaters in general. And “Renfield” — which is, at least, a somewhat novel way of reintroducing audiences to a chunk of underexploited IP in the Universal monsterverse — has the added advantage of three ringers at its performance apex. Also there’s Shohreh Aghdashloo purring her way through the cardboard part of the mob matriarch.
But the sour feeling I get watching larky bloodbaths like “Renfield” is not an isolated incident. Even in a film with a lot more going for it, delirious brutality can go south very quickly; I felt that way somewhere around the fifth skull-crush at the end of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The adoring sadism to which Quentin Tarantino and two generations of imitators are hopelessly devoted — for some, they’re cinematic songs of love. But not for me.
“Renfield” fans and I can surely agree on one thing: the entertainment value of a pointy-toothed Cage, 35 years after “Vampire’s Kiss,” reporting once again for bloodsucking duty. He makes wonderful sense as Dracula; he’s fashion plate, dandy and cockeyed optimist all in one, out to conquer the world on his own terms. Mainly, Cage keeps finding the damnedest ways to topspin his line readings so that you never know where a sentence is going. May the next outing with Renfield and Dracula, should the public and Universal decree it, be a little funnier and little less too much.
2 stars (out of 4)
Rated: R (for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use)
Running time: 1:33
How to watch: In theaters Friday
©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.