Nicolas Cage is known for chewing a little scenery here and there.
OK, make that, “a lot” of scenery.
“Mandy.” “Vampire’s Kiss.” “Raising Arizona.”
So casting him as Dracula in a horror comedy like “Renfield” comes with a caveat. Can Cage corral his instincts to keep the focus on the laughs, not the actor’s brand?
Suffice it to say Cage doesn’t suck in “Renfield,” a delirious romp marked by CGI blood and Cage’s calculated turn.
Nicholas Hoult plays the title character, the “familiar” who serves at his master’s beck and call. The Prince of Darkness (Cage) demands a steady supply of victims, and he isn’t shy about his hunger.
It leaves Renfield at an emotional crossroads. Is immortality worth it if it means burying your dreams in the process? (Not to mention eating bugs to gain super powers…)
“Renfield” shrewdly casts Bram Stoker’s characters as players in a 21st-century therapy session. Dracula is the boss from hell, and Renfeld’s co-dependency means he can never live an authentic life.
That angle is introduced early on, and it’s not just a gimmick meant to kick-start the story. It’s integral to both Renfield’s arc and a wider satire of pop psychology.
At one point Renfield tries to hold back Dracula with a self-help book as if it were a fistful of garlic bulbs. Later, the narcissistic count complains that he’s the victim here, not the stacks of bodies left in his wake.
That’s smart and funny.
Ryan Ridley’s script isn’t consistently sly, so “Renfield” fills the gaps with gross-out humor and buckets of digital blood. Bodies explode during several action scenes, our heroes wielding shattered limbs against the Count’s minions.
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Cage owns the movie, relishing the Count’s charismatic presence. He’s a monster, of course, but he can dial down the rage if it means getting his way. As good as Cage is here, and he’s wonderful, you pine for a more serious take on the vampire legend with Cage at its core.
Did you hear that, Hollywood?
Hoult, so good as the “Boy” in Hugh Grant’s “About a Boy,” grew to become a versatile star with a plucky sense of humor. Renfeld’s blossoming moral center gives the story its purpose, and Hoult’s line readings make the most of the droll dialogue.
Awkwafina plays a local cop who befriends Renfield, but their on-screen partnership feels restrained in ways that don’t serve the story. Heaven forbid these characters share a romantic embrace.
We need more from their partnership, yet their scenes together take us away from Cage. It’s a cinematic Catch 22 – “Renfield” feels thin without their bond, but we’re here to see an Oscar winner pump fresh blood into the Count.
One nice surprise? Comic actor Ben Schwartz plays a heavy. What seems like stunt casting turns into a slick piece of the story puzzle. His character’s mom (Shohreh Aghdashloo) could have been a worthwhile figure, but she gets buried in the third act under all that blood.
And she’s not alone. This isn’t for the faint of heart, although the tone is rigorously light.
“Renfield” opens with a meta nod to the Count’s roots, complete with black and white cinematography and a 4:3 screen ratio. It’s a sign that “Renfield” refuses to rest on classic horror tropes for our attention.
HiT or Miss: “Renfield” can’t sustain its giddy momentum from start to finish, but you’ll find more than enough laughs to make it a breezy treat.