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Renfield (2023)::rating::2.5::rating::2.5

Renfield is a lean, dumb sitcom of a movie, built on an irresistible idea:  Take Bram Stoker’s titular character, Count Dracula’s fanatical bug-munching toady, and rework him for modern times.  Put simply, this Renfield is a long-suffering sycophant, shackled to a toxic relationship with his narcissistic, gaslighting boss.

The filmmakers riff on that premise in exactly the ways you’d expect:  Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) attends a support group for people in dead-end, abusive relationships.  At first, he was just searching for pitiful mortals for his master (Nicolas Cage) to devour.  Gradually, a startled Renfield realizes he shares a kinship with these angry, broken souls.  Like them, his life is no longer his own.  He desperately wants it back, but such a mission will require Renfield to confront both his codependent tendencies, and the shapeshifting, bloodsucking monster fueling them.

At the same time, ol’ Dracula is drawing up plans of his own.  Turns out, an eternity of feasting on nuns and cheerleaders is getting a little, you know, stale.  If an undead creature can have an existential epiphany, this would be it:  Why simply live off the world, when you can conquer it wholesale?  Naturally, if the Count is to make this quest for dominion work, he’ll need his eternal slave.  Renfield is alarmed at his master’s newfound megalomania, and vows to undermine it at all costs.

The plot I just described would supply about 40 minutes worth of movie, so the filmmakers have to pack in some filler to pad things out to feature length.  That means we get a middling subplot about a maverick cop (Awkwafina), out to avenge the death of her father.  Also, Ben Scwartz plays a nepo mob killer who runs afoul of Renfield.  Neither storyline amounts to much, and both actors are criminally underused.  This entire section of the film lands with a massive thunk.

Of the lead roles, both stars leave it all on the field.  The Renfield character has come to symbolize a whipped bootlicker, but Hoult imbues him with a sturdy sense of decency.  We never doubt his simmering humanity, even in the film’s darker moments.  Meanwhile, Nic Cage’s Dracula is exactly what you think:  He goes deliciously and deliriously over the top, camping and vamping through his scenes with the reckless abandon the role desperately needs.  Hammy doesn’t even describe it.  No, Cage is a glazed, honey-baked Butterball, and I’m here for every bit of it.

Unfortunately, Hoult and Cage outshine the material.  While Renfield does cobble a few genuine laughs, most of it is cheap, rickety sitcom writing.  The actors do what they can with the stilted dialogue and flimsy jokes, but it all grows pretty tiresome.

For a movie that clocks in at just 93 minutes, that’s a bad sign.  Renfield is a one-joke tale, and that joke gets ridden harder than Seattle Slew.  Vampire aficionados might enjoy the goofy, modern twist on Stoker’s source material.  Fans of knucklehead comedy might find this to be an agreeable waste of time.  Everybody else, don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

93 minutes.  R.  On demand.

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