Renfield is a rare, truly modern monster movie

Nobody’s ever considered Dracula to be a good dude, per se: but in Renfield, he gets a very 2023 revamp as the ultimate toxic boss. Luke Buckmaster sinks his teeth into the new horror-comedy.

Renfield is that rare kind of monster movie: one that could never have been made in an earlier era. Audiences from another time would’ve watched, blinked, and thought “what are they talking about?”—in terms of actual dialogue as well as the cultural conversation the film enters. In it Nicholas Hoult’s titular character, the long-suffering servant of Dracula, opens up to a counselling group dealing with destructive relationships. Dracula, played by a Bela Lugosi-channeling Nicolas Cage, has been outed as a toxic male, with a terrible managerial style and blood-draining arseholery that has no place in the modern world.

Director Chris McKay casts Renfield as a Seymour Krelborn to Dracula’s insatiably hungry people-muncher, the former tasked with delivering the latter a steady flow of corpses. Hiding out in the basement of a New Orleans hospital, the pair’s new abode is “not exactly a castle,” Renfield concedes via voice-over, “but it is exactly the kind of place no-one tends to notice a convalescing monster.”

Said monster is tired of his umm-ing and ahh-ing servant and delivers the hard word, saying he “doesn’t ask for much…just the blood of a few dozen innocent people.” Like a freshly unionized employee or somebody who works for Elon Musk, Renfield realises he’s a victim trapped in a destructive relationship. So he storms into the therapy session and declares: “I need to get out of a toxic relationship.” He describes Dracula to the group as “pretty delusional” and somebody who “thinks he can take over the world.” The group counsellor assures him that “we know how you feel.”

By this point it’s clear the film has entered conversational spaces brand new to the Dracula legend. We’re a long way from Transylvania, where life used to be simple for the Count: wake up, get out of the coffin, sink some teeth into a fresh neck, return before sunrise. Now the guy has to deal with an employee who, self-help book in hand, declares “I will no longer tolerate abuse” and demands “love” and “happiness.” But Cage’s Dracula hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, responding to Renfield’s emotional outpouring in a less than sensitive way—threatening to “find and drain everybody you ever loved.”

This exchange reflects the film’s core tensions. Old blood-sucking grumbleguts is more set in his ways—and more unequivocally hungry—than ever, in contrast to an always-changing and increasingly thin-skinned contemporary society.  We’re reminded that fish-out-of-water comedies can be as much about time as place. The aforementioned tensions—between old and new, sensitive guy and ghoul—add an extra layer to otherwise cartoonishly straightforward performances. Hoult projects timidity and neediness while Cage chews the scenery, drawing out his sentences into slurry hisses, savouring lines like “I am the dark poetry in the hearts of all mankind.”

But even old-fashioned, ghoulish Dracula can’t escape contemporary discourse. A comment to Renfield that a “bus full of cheerleaders” would hit the spot triggers an amusing exchange, prompting his subordinate to clarify: “do you mean female cheerleaders?” Dracula knows where he’s going and attempts to shut it down: “don’t make it a sexual thing,” he says, “you know it’s not gender I’m concerned with.” Spruiking his non-discriminatory, non-gendered approach to consuming the blood of mortals, the villain insists: “I’ll eat boys, I’ll eat girls!” This small moment is my favourite scene in the film.

The downside of Renfield’s prescriptive approach is that it dictates a moral position, simplifying the already obvious. Did we really need to be told who is right and who is wrong in a story about a monster and his helper? The dictatorial elements reduce the film’s interpretative capacity and turn viewers into docile recipients of its messaging. An interesting point of comparison is Cage’s other vampire film, Vampire’s Kiss, in which the star delivers a brilliantly experimental and grotesque performance as a literary agent who gets bitten then spirals into madness. The protagonist terribly mistreats and abuses his secretary (María Conchita Alonso), making the film, like Renfield, also a portrait of toxic masculinity and a destructive relationship.

Except Vampire’s Kiss doesn’t explicitly say that. It shoves our faces in the insanity, the grotesquery, the unforgivable actions of a demented character, entrusting us to deal with it on our own terms. Nobody in their right mind would come out of this film thinking Cage played a hero. We don’t need to be told what he’s doing is wrong; we don’t need to be quoted from textbooks. Renfield is both a film that’s very much a product of its time, and, by applying the highlight pen to its premise, one likely to age quickly. Dracula of course will live to die another day.