On the commentary for Renfield, which was recorded before its theatrical release, the producer notes that she is working with the digital team to come up with some memes to help promote the film. Not sure if they ever got around to doing that, but if so, it didn't help; the horror-comedy tanked pretty hard at the box office, which is why it's already on Blu-ray a mere six weeks later (and it's been available on digital for a few weeks). A would-be studio comeback movie for Nicolas Cage, it alas failed to catch on with the masses; it's not even the highest-grossing film with Cage and Nicholas Hoult, as the younger actor played his son in 2005's The Weather Man (itself not a big hit).
Of course, horror-comedies traditionally have a tough time in theaters, as they're difficult to market and often leave horror fans feeling it's not scary enough to bother with, while comedy fans simply find them too weird. And selling the movie around a polarizing actor like Cage was always a risky choice, as even at his peak in the '90s and early '00s, audiences would simply ignore a number of his vehicles as if they had to be in a certain mood to enjoy his work. Long story short, no one involved should blame themselves for the film's failure – it's just how it, unfortunately, goes with many of these things.
But back to the memes. I can't help but wonder if this movie was doomed almost from the start, when an unofficial snapshot of the actor in his Dracula costume was circulated on the internet. With his maroon outfit contrasted against an otherwise bland city street, he looked goofy, like some kind of Willy Wonka-esque take on the character. And given the actor's penchant for bizarre choices and what's been dubbed "mega-acting," it was easy (if unfair) to get an idea of what Renfield was – a "monster's helper" movie with a distracting performance by an off-kilter actor. At that time, no one really knew what the tone would be like, with only the basic plot of "A Dracula story from Renfield's point of view" being known to us. But people had nearly 40 years' worth of Cage's eclectic performances to fill in the blanks in their expectations, with the costume signaling that this would be a meme-worthy movie.
However, it isn't – and that's the best thing about it! While Cage does have a few choice moments of, well, Cage-ness, he's actually in some ways the most grounded character in the film, which is a full-on comedy whenever he's not on screen. For years now, Cage has listed Dracula as one of the characters he wanted to play the most (the others were Captain Nemo and Superman; he sort of got his wish on the latter thanks to the Teen Titans movie), and he clearly took the job seriously.
On the Blu-ray bonus features, he talks about some of his favorite takes on the role. He doesn't just stick with the obvious hallmarks of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee (the latter being his primary source of inspiration, even though he was technically playing the Lugosi version according to the film's fun prologue) – he lauds Frank Langella's take in the 1979 version from John Badham (my personal favorite), Max Schreck in Nosferatu*, and adorably says "Uncle's movie" (not "My uncle" or whatever) when referring to Gary Oldman's take in (Uncle) Coppola's 1992 hit Bram Stoker's Dracula. Those who pay attention to Cage's interviews and such know that the man is a committed cinephile; it's not hard to assume he probably had deeper cuts in the full interview before they cut it down to fit Universal's standard 5-7 minute "featurette" length on these things (ten bucks says he's seen not only Dracula 2000, but its DTV sequel with Rutger Hauer taking over as the Count).
And it truly is a great performance, dare I say one of his best in the past twenty years (regardless of the quality of the movie, the man never phones it in, though his instincts aren't always the best fit for the material), which stands out in a movie where the majority of the cast is in full on comedy mode. Hoult (also a gifted actor) has some moments of pathos, but he also spends half the movie flying around on (painted-out) wires and kicking henchmen apart after eating bugs, plus making goofy faces at this or that thing. And his narration is filled with jokey lines, so it's very much a comedic performance, while Awkwafina and Ben Schwarz are just doing their usual thing,as if they weren't in a supernatural movie at all.
Cage, on the other hand, rarely plays to the cheap seats, giving Dracula a genuine sense of menace and even utilizing his seductive powers from time to time, keeping the threat very real even as the movie piles on the jokes about ska lyrics and "running DUI checkpoints in a town with drive-thru daiquiris." The trailer focuses on a scene where he introduces himself to Renfield's self-help group, showing off the lighter elements of his brief monologue, but the real highlight is when he cuts loose, viciously murdering them all with surprising ferocity, with nary a tic on display. I'd argue even Oldman's performance is more flamboyant and scenery-chewing, not to mention all of the comedic takes we've seen (endured?) over the years from the likes of Leslie Nielsen and Adam Sandler – it's, surprisingly enough, one of the more understated and serious big screen Draculas in ages. I knew it was a horror comedy, but I was happily surprised to see that Cage was primarily interested in the former part of that combination.
In other words, if you're the type of Cage fan (or is that "fan") who wants to laugh at out-of-context clips where he's shouting about bees or angrily reciting the ABCs, this will be a disappointing movie. I can think of maybe three brief moments in the entire thing where he's even approaching that level of over-the-top-ness (all of them in the trailer), and those still pale to the spectacle of choice moments in movies like Mandy or Mom and Dad, which are some of his recent genre efforts that weren't comedies first. If you just want to laugh at his behavior and find a few highlights to post on TikTok, you'll have to look elsewhere.
But if you genuinely appreciate this gifted and unusual actor (as I do) and what he brings to the table even when he's not even speaking, I hope you'll give Renfield the chance you didn't take in theaters (or maybe just never had the opportunity, given how quickly it played in them). The gags are hit or miss, and it feels like the runtime was much longer at one point (among the many bonus features is a cut dance number, but no other deleted scenes are present), so your overall opinion will vary. Still, Cage's performance is inarguably great and will hopefully serve as a reminder that we are lucky to have him.
*Cage nearly played Schreck himself in Shadow of the Vampire, which he produced, but ceded to Willem Dafoe when the actor expressed interest. But that would have taken some of the novelty of his performance here away, and Dafoe got an Oscar nom for his performance, so I say it all worked out for the best.
Renfield is now available on Blu-Ray, Digital, and streaming on Peacock.