Dwight Frye gave one of the greatest performances in cinema history, and you've never heard of him. It's Frye on screen in the opening minutes of 1931's Dracula, playing the mild-mannered lawyer who has traveled to Transylvania to deliver papers to the eponymous count and becomes his first victim in the movie. It's Frye's degeneration from upright young man into a gibbering, bug-eating schizophrenic that gives Dracula its horrific punch, not Bela Lugosi's cape and glare. When Frye breaks out into the slow, long, braying laugh that is his character's signature, a chill goes up your spine even now, nine decades after the movie was filmed. And it's because of Frye that his character's name has become a way to refer to slavish, insect-like followers of a charismatic monster—Renfield.
The very fine British actor Nicholas Hoult has succeeded Frye and is starring in a new picture named for the character. There is no mad, desperate, gleeful, psychotic, haunting joy in Hoult's Renfield. Rather, he's depressed and guilt-ridden and kind of a drag, which makes him an unusual character to be sitting at the center of an ultraviolent horror comedy, which is what Renfield is. The clear models for this film are the hilarious Ryan Reynolds vehicles Deadpool and Deadpool 2, which took the superhero genre and fed it through a crazy blender that made you alternately root for its remorseless hero and gasp at the sheer carnage that follows in his wake. No such feelings grip you at Renfield. You enjoy Deadpool's company because he's funny. You are fascinated by Frye/Renfield's company because he achieves an almost unparalleled level of intensity. But Hoult/Renfield leaves you entirely meh.
That's not to say the movie is lacking in intensity. The comedian Ben Schwartz has an indelible villainous moment snorting up a caterpillar as though it were cocaine. The wonderful Awkwafina proves yet again she can spin gold from dross by taking a completely incomprehensible part—a New Orleans cop who serves both as comic relief and as the driver of the plot when she tries to nail a drug-dealing family that killed her dad—and getting some laughs out of it.
And then there's Nicolas Cage, playing Dracula. He has spent the last four decades being intense on screen to a fault, and wearing out his welcome as such over the past two decades. He's for the most part kind of unbearable here, with 32 pointy teeth (rather than just 2) that make him hard to look at. But there are a few scenes where he dials it all back and pulls off some miraculous comic beats, as his Dracula shows off some expert skills at emotional manipulation. I think Cage needs to calm down, lay off, play some pickleball, and become a sitcom dad or something.
Oh, wait, the plot. So, having achieved immortality along with his "master," Hoult's Renfield is living in present-day New Orleans and slowly nursing Dracula back to health after a disastrous encounter with some exorcists. To do so properly, Renfield should be providing the count with innocents—nuns, virginal cheerleaders, and such. But he has a guilty conscience. He doesn't want to hurt people. He attends a church support group for codependents with the idea he will serve up the tormentors of these poor victims to his boss. He serves them up by using insects to provide him with superhuman powers and strength. Frye's Renfield ingested bugs because he had become so corrupted by Dracula's evil he was attempting to copy the vampire as he indulged in ending "little lives." Here bugs are like Barry Bonds's steroids. You shouldn't take them, but man, do they work.
This is not a good movie. Don't let anyone tell you different.
Published under: Movie Reviews