Founded on genre-defining hits from the early 1930s (such as Tod Browning’s Dracula with Bela Lugosi or James Whale’s Frankenstein with Boris Karloff), Universal Pictures’ monster movie tradition has struggled in recent decades. Despite shifting tons of Halloween merchandise every year, Universal has had to compete with other creatives’ takes on out-of-copyright creatures. In-house attempts to revive their main monsters have yielded disappointing-to-disastrous items like Van Helsing and the last remake of The Mummy (which scotched an MCU-like ‘Dark Universe’ on the launchpad). They finally connected with the heritage while presenting a fresh take on an old fiend with Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, reimagining the see-through bogeyman as the ultimate toxic-male ex-boyfriend. Chris McKay’s Renfield takes a higher-profile big bad off the shelf and presents Dracula (Nicolas Cage) as the worst boss in the world, and Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) as a minion stuck in a co-dependent relationship with the Prince Of Darkness.
Dracula is clearly totemic for McKay, who featured the vampire in both the Robot Chicken TV series and The Lego Batman Movie, and Renfield is permeated with love for the great horror tradition. An explanatory opening montage Photoshops Hoult and Cage over Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi in footage from the 1931 Dracula, positioning this as the first true sequel to that since Dracula’s Daughter (1935). Hoult does Frye’s unforgettable wheezy Renfield laugh once or twice, and the snatch of Swan Lake — which opens Dracula — is mixed into a busy score. Meanwhile, Cage homages Lugosi’s performance while copping a shark-tooth look (and top hat) from Browning’s earlier, lost vampire movie London After Midnight, in which Lon Chaney created a very different kind of predator. After decades of vampires who fall into the doomed-romantic or feral-junkie categories, Cage gives us a Dracula who’s evil on all levels — petty, sarcastic and manipulative with his abused minion, and grandiose as he plans to hook up with a New Orleans crime family and dominate the world.
The mix of Renfield is pretty eclectic. Besides classic horror pastiche and workplace black comedy, it’s an action movie in the heroic bloodshed style of the 1970s Street Fighter movies or even the recent Raid pictures. Hoult’s basically sweet, nevertheless lethal Renfield (Dracula’s blood gives him super-fighting powers) hooks up with Awkwafina’s lone honest cop to take on the Lobo crime cartel — headed up by Shohreh Aghdashloo, with Ben Schwartz as the foul-up Number One Son — and the entrenched corruption of her colleagues before they even get to face Dracula. It’s a horror-comic orgy of gore, with any number of bad guys torn to pieces, but occasionally pauses for poignant moments about the life Renfield lost by submitting to his master and unusual spins on vampire lore. Cage, who ate a real cockroach while starring in Vampire’s Kiss, has obviously been waiting for this gig all his life and chews every morsel given him, but Hoult and Awkwafina give the movie heart.