‘Renfield’: Nicolas Cage stakes a claim to Dracula in cheeky, gory horror comedy

The vampire’s a pain in the neck to his weary right-hand man (Nicholas Hoult) in the slick, fast-paced origin story.

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Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage, left) relies on his aide (Nicholas Hoult) to deliver fresh bodies in “Renfield.”

Universal Pictures

If you’re expecting to see wall-to-wall Nicolas Uncaged as Dracula in the goofy and darkly funny gorefest that is “Renfield,” hey, they’re telling us in the title this is the story of Drac’s right-hand man. And that’s exactly what we get: a slick, fast-paced, action-packed origin story about one Robert Montague Renfield, whose greed and ambition got the better of him and sentenced him to a very long lifetime of tending to his master’s needs, most of which involved procuring a new batch of fresh victims and bringing them home for dinner.

However, Renfield’s duties do NOT include him washing Dracula’s cape. That’s Dry Clean Only, as the movie makes clear.

That’s the type of cheeky humor that abounds in “Renfield,” which is never to be taken seriously, despite the mounting piles of bodies, the tragic back stories of the main characters and so much blood spurting that you almost feel like you should be wearing one of those tarps they hand out to front-row fans at “Blue Man Group” performances, which apparently are going to outlive Dracula.

‘Renfield’

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Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Chris McKay and written by Ryan Ridley. Rated R (for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use). Running time: 93 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

Director Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie,” “The Tomorrow War”) and writer Ryan Ridley (the TV series “Rick and Morty” and “Community”) aren’t interested in exploring existential themes or digging deep into the Bram Stoker playbook; they just found a relatively fresh angle in that our narrator and anti-hero is the guy in Vlad the Impaler’s shadows who is starting to feel the crushing psychological weight of a co-dependent relationship that has spanned decades.

Before Nicholas Hoult carved out an impressive career in films ranging from the “X-Men” franchise to “A Single Man” to “Warm Bodies” to “The Menu,” he was a charmer as the child sidekick to Hugh Grant in “About a Boy,” and Hoult pretty much does a spot-on impersonation of Grant’s rom-com-era mannerisms and speech patterns in “Renfield,” which helps make him at least somewhat empathetic, despite the job description.

In a clever sequence that has Cage and Hoult digitally inserted into Tod Browning’s 1931 classic “Dracula,” Renfield explains that as a young man, he essentially made a deal with the devil by signing on to work for Cage’s Dracula, and he’s spent the last century or so delivering victims to Dracula, nursing Dracula back to health after the numerous attempts on the Count’s life and remaining in the shadows of society as they’ve moved from hideout to hideout. (In present day, they’re holed up in an abandoned hospital in New Orleans, which gives the production design team a chance to shine.)

Renfield himself isn’t a full-on vampire, but he clearly has a semi-immortal streak going (he references once fighting in the Great War), and he gains superpowers simply by ingesting insects, which is kinda gross but not remotely as disgusting as the action sequences in “Renfield,” which often involve spilled innards and decapitated heads rolling like bowling balls.

It’s almost too easy to cast Nicolas Cage as Dracula and yet it also virtually guarantees we’ll get a manic, bat-bleep crazy, fantastically over-the-top performance, and Cage does not disappoint. With his mottled skin, increasingly flamboyant wardrobe and rows of piranha teeth, Cage’s Dracula isn’t much interested in moving about in polite society; he’s a flat-out psychopath who cares about only one thing: consuming the blood of innocent humans. (At one point he provides Renfield with a verbal shopping list that includes couples in love, nuns, maybe a busload of cheerleaders.)

With the help of a support group for victims of toxic relationships, Renfield is beginning to have serious doubts about working for Dracula—and he becomes even more conflicted after striking up a friendship with Awkwafina’s Rebecca, a New Orleans beat cop who is seeking revenge against New Orleans’ most feared crime family, the Lobos. (Hey, like in wolf!)

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A beat cop named Rebecca (Awkwafina) befriends Renfield.

Universal Pictures

At times, “Renfield” becomes an ill-fitting meld between a modern vampire story and a standard-issue crime thriller, as Rebecca and Renfield face off against the violent and ruthless Lobos, led by the cutthroat matriarch Bellafrancesca (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her amped-up, idiot son Tedward (Ben Schwartz, doing his thing but with a hyper-violent twist).

Though “Renfield” was indeed shot in New Orleans and has some suitably eerie location scenes, much of it looks as it were filmed on soundstages, with the special effects and the overall palette reminiscent of the kind of vampire movie you could have rented at Blockbuster back in the day. It’s not quite campy, but it certainly knows the way to Camp Town. With Cage delivering the goods in a juicy supporting role, and Hoult and Awkwafina developing a nice buddy-cop type chemistry, “Renfield” is an uneven but entertaining enough vampire comedy that gets as many laughs from creative slicing and dicing than it does from the dialogue. Also, the regal Shohreh Aghdashloo utters the phrase “butt dial” at one point, and I bet you didn’t have that on your Bingo card.

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