Monosodium glutamate, popularly known as MSG, is a naturally occurring amino acid. It is typically found in small quantities in such food items as tomatoes and cheese, but it has come to prominence as an isolated food additive and a flavour enhancer widely used all over the world, often associated with the umami flavour of far-Eastern cuisines. In short, it’s salt on steroids.
Which is what Nicolas Cage is in this new movie Renfield. He’s cinematic MSG. He is salt on steroids, and it is important to remember that to contextualize the following review of this film.
If I were to stick with culinary analogies – and if you know anything about me, you will also know I find such analogies both instructive and fun to indulge in – I believe I’d choose to view Renfield as a dish you’d be likely to concoct after a night out painting the town red. You’re barely holding it together, you’re still slightly inebriated but you are also severely famished. After all, liquid calories in alcoholic beverages rarely convince your brain that the body has received enough sustenance, so it points you towards the fridge with a mission to prepare something quick, calorific and – most importantly – edible. Yes. The bar is this low.
So, you find some mushrooms, some stale rice, eggs, a red onion, a sausage, a chilli that under other circumstances would probably end up in the bin, some bacon lardons, garlic and a can of tomatoes. You find a pan, whack it on the stove, crank the heat up to screaming hot, lubricate the proceedings with whatever oil you happen to find and off we go to the races. Wham-bam and a makeshift stir fry is just about ready. It looks just about ordinary, and it will taste accordingly as well.
This is where you remember that MSG makes anything better so just when all those flavours have gotten to know each other in the pan, you sprinkle some of that yum-yum powder and the result is elevated with that umami energy you sorely need to make this meal enjoyable in any appreciable manner.
That’s Renfield in a nutshell.
If I were to sit down and examine it as though it was a serious attempt to make a movie, I don’t think I’d be too positive about what Renfield is. It is a bit of a haphazard mishmash of tropes picked up from all corners of the Dracula lore, where the comedic twist is that we follow the story from the perspective of Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), Dracula’s sidekick cursed to derive sustenance from bugs and other creepy crawlies. On top of that, the movie is set in present-day America which provides ample opportunities for fish-out-of-water humour, as we get to explore the intricacies of Renfield’s plight to stay under the radar as he prowls for victims to drag into an abandoned hospital where his master – played by Nicolas Cage – feasts upon their blood and slowly regains strength. But that’s not even the half of it because the movie then shifts its perspective and inhabits the headspace of a local police officer Rebecca (Awkwafina) who moonlights as a detective, in good part in consequence of her unresolved traumatic backstory, and crosses paths with Renfield and his work, which to the complete outsider looks and feels like the work of a bog-standard serial killer.
So, let’s just say that the movie is a bit of a mess, as it jumps freely between this variety of concepts derived from all sorts of places. Hence, Renfield plays like an attempt at “spandexifying” the Dracula lore and treating the titular character a bit like a socially withdrawn member of the X-Men whose superhuman abilities are wholly dependent on the supply of insects and arachnids in the surrounding area, all with a hint of a tongue-in-cheek element of meta-commentary and self-awareness transplanted from other horror comedies (What We Do in the Shadows is probably a good example to mention in this context) and nested on the periphery of a police procedural written, for all I care, for Melissa McCarthy, who must have turned down the opportunity to pursue literally anything else.
Being completely honest, those flavours don’t necessarily play well together. Conceptually, Renfield could be easily summarized as a try-hard attempt at a horror comedy that desperately wants to tick all the boxes it can tick in hopes of ringfencing a wide enough prospective audience to make just about enough money for the producers not to give anyone responsible for putting this movie together the proverbial sack. But it somehow works. Renfield feels genuinely funny and interesting despite the fact none of its constituent elements are particularly original or fitting. It is a stir fry put together by an inebriated twenty-something after a whole evening of partying on the town and assembled from elements who found themselves in the pan only because they were available in the fridge.
And the only reason this movie works is because it is seasoned generously with cinematic MSG – Nicolas Cage, whose take on Dracula is an absolute pleasure to watch. Not because he’s particularly original. Not because his character is well written either. In fact, it’s just the opposite… but it looks original because it is amped up and elevated by Cage’s acting, or more specifically, by his conviction. He takes his own ridiculousness, as well as the ridiculousness of the entire conceit, completely seriously and therefore he makes it real. He is the reason why the viewer can even entertain the thought this horror-comedy-meets-superhero-movie-meets-procedural hodgepodge festooned with self-aware commentary throughout could cohere in the first place.
Perhaps this is a tacit acknowledgment – or rather a reminder – that Nicolas Cage is an extremely talented performer whose greatest strength lies in the combination of his range and awareness of what’s appropriate for the role he is playing and how it is to serve and enhance the movie as a whole. He is an amplifier who gathers the film’s energetic strands, bundles them into a beam and projects them at the viewer who is likely receive this viscerally as a feeling of the movie doing the right thing.
Therefore, the best thing that ever happened to Renfield was when Nicolas Cage signed up to be a part of it, because without his singular conviction in delivering a performance that is as ridiculous as it is gleaming, the movie would have been an utterly forgettable high concept failure at genre-derived self-awareness akin to Warm Bodies, which ironically enough, also starred Nicholas Hoult. Thankfully, because of Nicolas Cage’s bravura in taking his character’s ludicrousness with respect literally nobody else would be willing to afford it. He carries himself with such confidence that he sells the premise, the conceit, the quirks and the multiple plot machinations – the whole caboodle – as though it was all organically fitting (which it isn’t).
In consequence, the movie is simply fun to watch. The many uber-violent action sequences rife with dismemberment, fake blood, CGI and slow-mo indulgences come across as entertaining. Awkwafina’s snappy seriousness fits the bill. Nicholas Hoult’s awkwardness makes sense. The villain being inconsequential to anything (What, there’s another villain? Exactly!) doesn’t matter. And it’s all thanks to a character who isn’t even there on the screen most of the time. It works because we know he’s there somewhere and when he is in fact on screen, he ties the room together – like that rug in The Big Lebowski.
It just goes to show that just like MSG makes any dish better, Nicolas Cage has the same effect on movies he’s in, regardless of their provenance or pedigree. He’s a pro who wouldn’t turn up his nose at the most ridiculous roles as long he had fun with them and what tends to happen is that he makes terrible movies passable and passable movies great. Renfield is somewhere in between those two so Nic Cage’s MSG energy makes the movie solid. Not passable. Not great. Solid. It’s still not the most nutritious cinematic meal you could serve, but given the circumstances, Renfield deserves a pat on the back, or at least a Mars bar.