Producers: Chris McKay, Samantha Nisenboim, Bryan Furst, Sean Furst, Robert Kirkman and David Alpert Director: Chris McKay Screenplay: Ryan Ridley Cast: Nicolas Cage, Nicholas Hoult, Awkwafina, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, Brandon Scott Jones, Camille Chen, Jenna Kanell, Bess Rous, James Moses Black and Rosha Washington Distributor: Universal Pictures
How does a good idea go so terribly wrong? When Universal announced its intention to resurrect its stable of classic monsters from the thirties in a new series of features under the umbrella of the Dark Universe, the idea seemed promising. After all, the British studio Hammer had enjoyed considerable success in reviving them in their low-budget but stylish versions of the 1950s and 1960s, and “The Mummy” trilogy with Brendan Fraser had been dumb fun.
But Universal had bigger things in mind. Executives decided that the pictures must be action behemoths capable of going toe-to-toe with the Marvel superhero smashes. They hired Alex Kurtzman to be the general overseer of the series, and to helm the first installment, “The Mummy.” They provided him with a blockbuster-sized budget and a star, Tom Cruise, who’s box office gold. In the event, though, the movie was generally reviled, and proved such a financial bomb that it ended the whole project. It was the Zack Snyder DC story all over again.
Now the studio has returned to excavating its monster vault with what appears to be a one-off, a modern riff on Tod Browning’s classic 1931 “Dracula.” The clever premise, originated by comic book guru and “Walking Dead” co-creator Robert Kirkman, is that Renfield, the lawyer turned fly-eating madman who became the count’s gofer in the early film, would now be disenchanted with having to cater to his master’s every whim and join a mutual aid group for people suffering from co-dependency issues, hoping to find a way to end his toxic relationship. And director Chris McKay snagged a great pair for the leads: Nicolas Cage, whose super-gonzo performance in 1988’s “Vampire’s Kiss” made him the perfect choice for Dracula, and Nicholas Hoult, whose understated, Hugh Grant-ish charm and flair for nervous hesitancy promised a winning Renfield.
And at first McKay’s picture seems to live up to its potential. The initial scenes, shot in black-and-white, recreate those in the 1931 film, with Cage and Hoult replacing Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye. But delight quickly turns to dismay as “Renfield” morphs into a garish action comedy with a barrage of bloodbath set pieces in which even Cage’s sinister impishness and Hoult’s ingratiating bumbling are swallowed up in grossness and incoherence.
The real villain here isn’t the undead prince of darkness, but the script by Ryan Ridley. The fact that it sets up a whole new set of rules for Dracula and Renfield (the former can be burned to ash but restored to full strength by human blood, while the latter gets super powers from eating bugs) is unfortunate, but these could have been handled in a way that made them amusing. Instead, however, they become part of a slapdash New Orleans crime comedy involving a drug-dealing gang headed by mob boss Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo, criminally misused), her leering son Teddy (Ben Schwartz, chewing whatever scenery Cage leaves behind) and Rebecca (Awkwafina, trying to act tough, and failing miserably), apparently the only honest cop in the city, who’s not only a kick-ass heroine but a prospective romantic interest for Renfield. Renfield and Rebecca ultimately must join forces to defeat both Dracula and the gang, to which, for some reason, he has attached himself to advance his plan of world domination.
There’s an occasional engaging moment in the movie, inevitable given that Cage and Hoult are involved. But the former’s performance, which nicely mixes genuine nastiness and comic narcissism, is hobbled by the uncertain editing of Zene Baker, Ryan Folsey and Giancarlo Ganziano, who cut it up into relatively small segments that dilute the impact. (They frankly seem more interested in the prolonged fight sequences, with their anatomical graphics of internal organs rupturing and the great splashes of blood that result.) It also doesn’t help that Cage plays much of it under heavy, unpleasant makeup. And while longer tales allow greater opportunity for Hoult to register Renfield’s anxiety, Awkwafina’s inability to get much beyond posturing and pouting as Rebecca makes that character little more than dead weight. On the other hand, Jones and the various members of the support group might remind you of the oddball patients of Bob Newhart’s old TV show.
Technically the picture is okay but hardly outstanding, with the production design by Julie Berghoff and Alec Hammond, costumes by Lisa Lovaas and set decoration by Gretchen Gattuso and Cynthia Anne Slagter showing flickers of imagination. Mitchell Amundsen’s cinematography is decent, though once again the over-editing of the action sequences hurts. Marco Beltrami’s predictably uninventive score occasionally includes echoes of some classical pieces, and one might well wonder, for example, how strains of “Carmen” are meant to enhance an early fight scene.
“Renfield” will probably be fun for viewers who found movies like J.J. Perry’s “Day Shift” and Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead”—even Robert Schwentke’s “R.I.P.D.”—to their liking. But given the possibilities afforded by its premise, it might well remind you of what Bart Simpson once famously observed of a faculty talent show at Springfield Elementary: “I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows.”