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(from left) Dracula (Nicolas Cage) and Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) in Renfield, directed by Chris McKay.

Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in a scene from Renfield.Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures

  • Renfield
  • Directed by Chris McKay
  • Written by Ryan Ridley
  • Starring Nicholas Hoult, Awkwafina and Nicolas Cage
  • Classification 18A; 93 minutes
  • Opens in theatres April 14

A good deal has changed for Nicolas Cage during the 35 years since he last played a bloodsucker (sorta) in 1988′s Vampire’s Kiss. The actor has gone from smouldering rom-com lead to Oscar darling to franchisable action star to direct-to-video punchline to walking, talking, winking meme.

Is Cage’s decision, then, to strap the fangs back on with the new Dracula comedy Renfield a distressing sign of regression, or a refreshingly self-aware attempt to replay the hits of his career before Hollywood (or the tax man) puts a nail in his coffin? Renfield might contain an answer, but it is too busy drowning audiences – and Cage – in bloodless one-liners and cheap CGI viscera for anyone to notice.

A #NotAllMonsters comedy that struggles mightily to maintain its one good idea – that creatures real and imagined tend to prey on victims’ desire for, or addiction to, co-dependency – director Chris McKay’s film is as laborious and grim as any toxic relationship. After a quick, mildly clever prologue that establishes, via the classic aesthetic of Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula, the relationship between “familiar” henchman Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) and his master vamp (Cage), the action shifts to present-day New Orleans.

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(from left) Chris (Adrian Martinez) and Rebecca (Awkwafina) in Renfield, directed by Chris McKay.

Awkwafina stars as a local cop who is fighting corruption in the film.Photo Credit: Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures

It is here where Drac is recuperating after a battle with a Van Helsing-like character has left him a grim husk of a demon, with Renfield left to scour the city for fresh meat. But with his master’s bloodlust becoming increasingly insatiable and untenable – how does one go about procuring a busload of cheerleaders, anyway? – Renfield starts to have second thoughts about his centuries-long servitude. After a murder-cute scene in which he is introduced to a local cop (Awkwafina) fighting corruption, an opportunity for redemption presents itself for Renfield to go from evil lackey to stake-wielding hero.

Cage, naturally, makes a Michelin-starred meal out of his role, treating his version of Dracula as equal parts Legosi and Liberace. Sipping blood out of a martini glass and whisper-slurring his lines to the point of near-inaudibility, the actor brings eccentric, wry life to the world’s most famously undead icon. Even more impressive is how Cage maintains the macabre fun underneath layers of impressively gnarly prosthetics, especially in the film’s early going, when Dracula has yet to achieve “full power” and is just a mess of dangling flesh and shards of bone.

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Benjamin Shwartz as Henry in Renfield, directed by Chris McKay.

Ben Schwartz's smarmy criminal is Renfield's second secret weapon of casting, but he is unfortunately underutilized.Photo Credit: Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures

The trouble with Renfield, though, is the fact that it’s called Renfield and not Dracula. Snivelling when not stiff, the title character is a bore, as is Hoult’s shoulder-shrug of a performance. And pairing the actor with Awkwafina’s righteous cop only further flatlines the film’s energy, leaving McKay (who is not having nearly as much fun as he had directing The Lego Batman Movie) to resuscitate the proceedings with increasingly ugly pile-ons of sub-cartoonish violence. I’m on the record as being extremely pro-gore when the situation calls for it, but the violence here is rendered in such a garishly cut-rate fashion – all computer-generated spurts and slashes – that its intended shocks land as deep as a paper cut.

Meanwhile, the film largely abandons its second secret weapon of casting – Ben Schwartz, playing a smarmy criminal as if Parks and Recreation’s Jean-Ralphio had a sideline with a drug cartel – in favour of returning, over and over again, to group-therapy scenes between Renfield and other victims of (non-supernatural) narcissists. The repetitive gag aims for the fluorescently-lit dark comedy of Fight Club’s testicular-cancer meetups, but lands closer to an Exposition Anonymous session.

If Cage should end up living a further 35 years – knock on a wooden stake – we would all be so lucky to watch him play yet another Nosferatu. But until then, feel free to expose Renfield to direct sunlight, and watch it burn.

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