"Renfield" and the Return of German Expressionism
One of the most polarizing films of April 2023 so far is Chris McKay's Renfield, which reached theaters this week. Seeing Renfield was one of the most fun cinema experiences I have had in a while. Not only was it a unique, action-filled comedy, but it also had a good amount of heart and utilized a style of film that largely hasn't been seen since the early days of the motion picture, German Expressionism.
Renfield follows the story of Robert Montague Renfield, the "familiar" of Count Dracula. For those who don't know, a familiar is essentially a servant who is gifted a small amount of Dracula's powers including strength and immorality. The titular character is played by English actor, Nicholas Hoult who gives a uniquely charismatic performance with great comedic timing. Throughout the story, Renfield attempts to sever his toxic relationship with Dracula in favor of becoming a hero, after years of being a villain. It's a fun, modern twist on a tale as classic and macabre as Dracula.
The rest of the cast features strong performances from Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, and Shohreh Aghdashloo but the crown jewel of the cast is Nicolas Cage as the iconic Count Dracula. For years, Cage has been saying how inspired he was by the German Expressionist movement and how he often incorporates it into his work, making Renfield the absolute perfect project for him to finally show off his love for the film style. Cage delivers a new, even more eccentric version of the legendary character, while incorporating modern humor that the audience will enjoy. Hoult and Cage have great onscreen chemistry as the duo, as well.
Renfield is extraordinary in terms of production design. The lighting and colors are always so deliberate and eye-catching, this was the first time I had noticed production design in a long while. The movie is also filled with gratuitous gore that somehow manages to be creative and new. Practically every action scene resulted in an entertaining, bloody mess. The exaggerated production design is just another example of how heavily the film takes inspiration from old German Expressionist films like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of Nic Cage's favorite movies.
One of the major standouts of Renfield comes early on when the titular character is recounting the story of how he came to be Dracula's familiar, and in doing so, the director and company decided to do shot-for-shot remakes of certain scenes from Todd Browning's Dracula (1931) substituting Bela Lugosi for Nicolas Cage and Dwight Frye for Nicholas Hoult. It just made my little film nerd heart sing. You can tell that the cast and crew have a true appreciation for the old adaptations of Dracula.
I found myself thoroughly impressed at how Renfield was able to take these classic characters and revamp them in such an original, modern way. It's not like any other film I've seen before and I really appreciate just how many risks were taken in terms of script and production to make the film come to life. In a world where the current film landscape is dominated by sequels, reboots, and Marvel movies, it's refreshing to see a film that's so unapologetically unique.
I wasn't surprised to see that Renfield wasn't exactly a smash at the box office but it was a genuine shock to see the divisive critic scores it has been given so shortly after its release. The film currently holds a score of 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics citing that the comedy was sub-par, but I watched this in a theater with only ten audience members and there was clear, audible laughter.
Renfield is a film that is not going to please everybody, and I think the filmmakers went in knowing that, but that in itself is an honorable risk in a film world that relies on playing it safe. Overall it's a fun, gothic, great time at the movies that you won't forget. Make sure to catch it in theaters this upcoming weekend.