‘Renfield’ sinks its teeth into gore at the expense of its Dracula satire

CNN Newsource Pristine Villarreal

(CNN) — Dwight Frye is hardly a household name, but the character actor left his mark on Universal horror movies of the 1930s, including his portrayal of Dracula’s maniacal henchman in the Bela Legosi classic. Enter “Renfield,” a cheeky homage to the vampire genre that blends horror and comedy into a beyond-bloody cocktail, with Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage sinking their teeth into the too-thin material.

Produced and conceived by Robert Kirkman of “The Walking Dead” renown, “Renfield” begins promisingly enough, with Hoult’s Renfield — Dracula’s “familiar,” or the human servant who tends to his daytime needs — sitting in on a support group for people in abusive relationships. There’s also a spot-on replication of the old black-and-white movies, with just the smallest hint of Renfield’s wheezing laugh.

Those wrinkles, however, amount to false advertising for a movie that derives most of its humor from over-the-top gore, an amusing-in-theory notion that inevitably yields diminishing returns even spread over a relatively brisk 90-some-odd minutes.

“Renfield” is so much better when the film is having fun with vampire-movie minutia — like Dracula (Cage) needing to be invited into places, or the particulars of how to kill him — that the broadness of those visual gags make it feel like an underachiever, especially when compared to something that gets the balance right, like the FX series “What We Do in the Shadows.”

Directed by Chris McKay (“The LEGO Batman Movie”) from a script by Ryan Ridley, “Renfield” also introduces a sort-of relationship between its title character and a principled cop, Rebecca (Awkwafina, underemployed here), who brings out his desire to be a better man. Then again, he’s already exhibited those impulses by having sought to steer his boss toward more-deserving victims, while Dracula thirsts for nuns and cheerleaders.

The makeup effects are bountiful and fairly impressive, with Renfield deriving super-human strength from consuming insects, which he gets to put into use against the mobsters Rebecca is obsessed with putting behind bars. Yet the way those visual elements are applied does more to narrow the movie’s appeal than expand it, catering to a subset of the horror audience at the expense of those who might show up expecting something closer to a Mel Brooks-like spoof.

What’s billed as a horror-comedy thus can’t entirely decide where it wishes to land on that spectrum, in a movie that benefits from letting Cage cut loose without fully capitalizing upon his full-throated performance.

Universal has creatively sought to mine equity from its monster library, and “Renfield” certainly brings those efforts into the 21st century, for better and worse. And while Renfield might be trapped in a “destructive relationship” with a cruel and demanding master, the filmmakers have only themselves to blame for their questionable choices.

“Renfield” premieres April 14 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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