The Weird and Wonderful Nic Cage and Nick Hoult Resurrect the Legend of Dracula
DIRECTOR: CHRIS MCKAY/2023
What’s a poor vampire’s familiar to do when he decides he wants a career change?
Even with benefits like super strength and immortality, doing Dracula’s dirty work can get dull after more than a century. Worse, no matter your seniority level, that nagging guilt about murdering people for your boss’s lunch never goes away. Since the late 1800s, Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has served Count Dracula’s (Nicolas Cage) every need, including rescuing him from vampire hunters and running daytime errands like dry cleaning. At present they are staking out an abandoned hospital in New Orleans, but with the dominance of the city’s Lobo crime family, it’s becoming harder to hide. Also making it hard to hide: clean cop Rebecca (Awkwafina), whose integrity and tenacity won’t let her ignore the crime she sees in her hometown. After all these years, could Renfield leave this world behind for a normal life? Or will he be stuck in service to Dracula until he realizes his vision for world domination?
This is a review of Renfield, but it’s also an ode to the Nic(k)s, two of our most unusual movie stars. Though they have 25-year age gap, they fill a similar vein of movie star. You can find them in big budget studio output and working with idiosyncratic auteurs. They’re handsome atypical of the Sexiest Man Alive! mold, but neither is afraid to hide that coveted Hollywood asset behind makeup, masks, or animation. They’ve played superheroes, genre villains, romantic leads, and historical figures. Cage has earned a reputation for a prolific output, and a side-by-side IMDb comparison shows Hoult is on pace with him. He turns 34 this year and will have 34 feature films to his name; at age 34 in 1998, Cage had 32. (Hoult also keeps busy with prestige TV like The Great, though he hasn’t done episodic work as often as when he was a kid actor. Except for a brief stint in exec producing a TV show, Cage has stayed focused on movies.) Are they leading men or character actors? Dramatists or comedians? Mainstream movie stars or, well, kinda weirdos? Yes, yes, and yes. Hoult seems less interested in creating a celebrity persona, but I can’t help but wonder if he’s been eyeing Cage’s craft and career moves since he played his son in 2005’s The Weather Man.
Despite his appearances in comic book adaptations and Best Picture nominees, I suspect Hoult is still relegated to “That Guy” for the average moviegoer, or even “That Kid” for those who remember him as Hugh Grant’s precocious sidekick in About a Boy. I’ve been smitten with Hoult’s career since 2013’s Warm Bodies, in which he played a pale-faced zombie who wants to atone for a cannibalistic past in a gore-tinged rom-com with allusions to Romeo and Juliet. A decade later, he’s playing a pale-faced vampire’s assistant who wants to atone for a cannibalistic boss in a gore-soaked action-comedy with allusions to Romeo and Juliet. As said boss, Cage is also revisiting familiar territory after playing a yuppie-gone-batty in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss.
I dare you to question either of them retreading those character arcs until after you’ve seen Renfield. Hoult’s big eyes convey a morally-conflicted outsider with such sympathy you’ll forgive his murderous ways in a heartbeat, and Cage is having so much fun as a villain you’ll wonder if you really want to see him vanquished. (Renfield is the refreshing genre adventure that does not demand a franchise or cinematic universe, but we could do worse if Universal found a way to resurrect this one-off story for a sequel.) They’re flanked by a hilarious supporting cast, including Awkwafina doing her charming shtick, Brandon Scott Jones cheering Renfield on as a blindly optimistic therapist, and Ben Schwartz twisting his obnoxious Parks & Recreation role into who Jean-Ralphio would’ve been with sinister parents.
The script does not bring new mythology to Dracula, but it sure has fun riffing on it, working details of Bram Stoker’s legend into a horror-action-comedy. (In a moment of kismet, writer Ryan Ridley’s first credit on the sitcom Community was an episode riffing on Cage’s career in similar fashion.) Also fun, it’s the rare non-arthouse flick whose trailer didn’t give away too much. Perhaps we can thank its R rating for that? Renfield is plenty gory, though the blood-sucking and decapitating are so over-the-top they’ll make you laugh more than they’ll upset you. This is, after all, a movie with an ironic Lizzo needle drop. It’s just as much a high-concept comedy and a buddy cop action-adventure as it is fantasy horror, which director Chris McKay keeps in just the right balance.
None of those genres portend significant thematic depth, but if Renfield has any wisdom for our moment, it’s in its depiction of abusive boss-employee relationships. Whatever you think of The Great Resignation or quiet quitting, there is no denying the weeds of discontent popping up around our jobs. We may not be plodding for supernatural serial killers, but like Renfield, we’re so exhausted by a culture of never-off work and our employers’ unfulfilled promises we’re second-guessing whether we’ve sold our souls to corporations who do more harm than good. Worse, now that we’ve come to that depressing conclusion—what Harper’s Magazine calls “an inchoate sense of disillusionment”—the power imbalance with our superiors and an equally depressed economy makes it impossible to escape without great personal risk. Whatever kind of support groups we find help us process this frustration, but they can’t rescue us from the Office Space-style existential crisis. Of course, this is a deeper read than this vampire horror-action-comedy demands, and probably more than McKay and Ridely intend. But they do remind us if there’s hope for a poor vampire’s familiar, it’s not too late for us to find redemption, either. At the very least, Renfield is a 93-minute escape from our paycheck-induced drudgery with two of our most generous, curious, versatile movie stars—and two who seem to enjoy their jobs at that.