Nobody wanted a Shared Universe more than Universal. That is part of why they couldn’t have one. They started with the idea of having the universe and then made the movies to do that based on properties that only share the quality of being under their corporate umbrella. The Mummy (2007) was their now-infamous flop that tried to sell us more than it carried. The Mummy, after all, was just a star vehicle. The way you sell that movie is you have Tom Cruise and you sell Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise figured it out after, realizing that if he wants to sell himself he ought to produce and have more creative control and not allow this to happen again. Another of our fun-to-watch stars, Nicolas Cage, is a better fit because he does not necessarily sell a movie, but does know what people want from him and will perform at least one ridiculous monologue that fits within our expectations. Renfield is also a troubled franchise non-starter, that was meant to be greenlit when The Mummy was still being planned back in 2014. After a lengthy gestation period, it has arrived without too much fanfare, although there are a few reasons to pay attention.
The first reason is that Renfield is a snappy hour and a half. It does not waste too much time inside that now desirable runtime. It has not attracted much of an audience in theaters but feels like a comfortable bargain as it releases for an at-home market. There is a slightly better argument for the context of use there, wherein someone would spend an hour and a half watching any delirious Nicolas Cage movie. Ideally, they have seen the superior Vampire’s Kiss (1988), where Nicolas Cage plays five different versions of a vampiric character and so they will want to watch him play a character like this again. The onus is less on his shoulders to save this movie because it doesn’t need saving and Cage is able to just play Dracula in one way we would want him to play Dracula and it works, even though the zany Cage moment barometer hits a lower register. He gives us almost nothing more than we expect and we’re thanking him.
Because the second reason is that the movie almost works independently of the draw or non-draw of Nicolas Cage being in it. That’s because Nicholas Hoult is having the kind of fun playing Renfield that invites us to have some fun with him. Barely based on the original epistolary novel, the movie understands the whole history of this text being misshapen and represented as anything but the story it originally told. This presents enough rope for Chris McKay to offer a relaxed comedic identity. The movie is spry and light on its feet enough, willing to let go of the source as anything more than a thematic point of guidance for its characters, leaning into an abundance of silliness. The funny enough idea at its premise is that Renfield has grown tired of his subservience to Dracula and placed himself into meetings for codependent people. There is not any real seriousness afforded to this plotline besides grafting from the original text this already implicit reliance on the traditional vampire story. It then works from here, neither as a spoof nor parody, standing as its own messy self-contained narrative about these characters.
There is the sticking point where this goes from a just-fine comedy to a soft recommendation. Renfield, as a holdover of the Dark Universe project, feels tonally self-contained. It doesn’t have to be the end of the story but its story has an ending that doesn’t point toward anything else as a necessity. What it does, more smartly than The Mummy, is carve out an example of how this kind of storytelling can go in Universal’s other properties. It better fits in with the quippy Marvel and DC canon of standardized storytelling while making most of its gags either products of over-acting (understanding what the actors can do) or by emphasizing medium-caliber squib and arterial bloodshed. It’s certainly a brash bloody affair, a softer kind of R-rated comedy that feels more open to a range of audiences. Sloppy dark comedy filmmaking but not wholly overwhelmed by the darkness, the comedy, or the slop.
There is a sense that for all of the blood, the film may be a bit bloodless. The action happens but feels like it’s not really happening. The amount of spraying crimson and an intentional use of color always gives the film a look but the way the action is shot and cut is unconvincing that there is ever any material danger for the characters. Helpfully, everyone is pretty good when they are not doing action. The film understands the unsubtly of Cage, the understated charisma of Hoult, how to play into Awkwafina’s casting as a foul-mouthed cop, and how to make Ben Schwartz a bit unlikable at first, so he can get to be a little funny. Everything may come in small measures but as an accumulated and compact movie, this is the more likely shot at something like a basic and average Universe Starter. The reason why Renfield does this and why it might not have to do this to be perfectly fine, is that it’s just a pleasant and short foray into likable (and purposefully unlikable) characters that play with our understood context that these characters can adapt to any story we put them in. There are enough small moments that amount to a fuller picture that Renfield just barely gets away with everything it’s doing but ultimately, we are laughing with it.