Cineworld, Edinburgh

The vaults of Universal Studios contain a huge horror legacy, which remains largely unexplored. In 2017, a Tom Cruise-led reworking of The Mummy was intended as an introduction to a whole raft of films featuring Universal-inspired gods and monsters. I liked the film, but few others did and the resulting box office put a swift end to those plans. Of course, Dracula is the studio’s best-known bogeyman, so something was sure to happen eventually. With Renfield, director Chris McKay’s approach to er… revamping the Count is to focus on his eponymous insect-eating sidekick, whilst dialling the comedy – and the gore – all the way up to 11.

The result is an enjoyable, if somewhat uneven romp, that for the most part galumphs cheerfully through a whole series of decapitations, dismemberments and bodily explosions, without ever really pausing long enough to catch its breath. In this account of the classic tale, Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) has finally become disenchanted with his role as chief cook and bottle-washer to Count Dracula (Nick Cage, channeling a mix of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney). After ninety years in the post, Renfield realises that he’s trapped in a toxic relationship. But there are some advantages to being him. For instance, his constant diet of insects has given him the ability to harness prodigious strength and to perform gymnastic fight moves. (No idea why. Let’s move on.)

But he’s gradually coming around to the idea that there must be more for him in the duo’s latest haunt (New Orleans) than the irksome task of finding an endless supply of people for his master to consume.

So he joins a 12-step self-help group for people in co-dependent relationships, where he meets others who – like him – are suffering through adversity. And then he encounters hard-assed cop, Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), who is struggling to make headway in a corrupt police force that’s actually being run by powerful Queen-pin, Bella Francesca (Shoreh Aghdashloo). Renfield and Rebecca are clearly attracted to each other, though the relationship remains curiously chaste. They team up to take on Bella Francesca, only to discover that her gang now has a new recruit – Dracula himself – and he’s determined that his former accomplice won’t get the better of him.

Renfield is good fun, provided the unrestrained splatter doesn’t put you off. (If the sight of a man being beaten to death with his own dismembered arms doesn’t strike you as outrageously funny, then maybe this isn’t the film for you.) Mind you, it’s not all rampant gore and cheap laughs. In an early section, there’s lovely use of footage from Todd Browning’s 1931 Dracula with Hoult’s and Cage’s faces spliced onto the bodies of Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. It gives a brief insight into the kind of film this might have been – but such subtlety is in pretty short supply and we’re soon catapulted back to the carnage.

Hoult has always been a likeable screen presence and carries this along by sheer force of personality, while Cage is clearly having a whale of a time with his role. Sadly, Awkwafina doesn’t get an awful lot to do except look sullen and shoot a lot of people. And it probably doesn’t do to dwell too much on the plot, which is every bit as cartoonish as the action.

Overall, this is fun, but at the end of the day, it must be said that there isn’t an awful lot to… ahem… get your teeth into.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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