All movies start with a pitch. A writer will pitch an idea to a studio executive and then that exec will decide if the concept is worth pursuing. In the case of “Renfield”, Robert Kirkman, the creator of “The Walking Dead” came up with the idea of basing a movie around Dracula’s obsequious assistant. The character has been around Bram Stoker’s book but Renfield has never been the focus of a story. Sometimes all you need is a high concept idea to get something made in Hollywood.  Unfortunately in this case, a solid screenplay and director did not appear to be required.

“Renfield” begins comically as it uses black and white shots from the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi with Dwight Frye as Renfield. In this new version, Nicolas Cage stars as Dracula and Nicholas Hoult as Renfield. Master and servant now live in modern day New Orleans. Renfield attends group therapy sessions to find new victims for Dracula. The sessions begin to make him realize that he is in a toxic relationship. While trying to rid himself of the power of Dracula,  Renfield gets mixed up with a local drug gangster, making his reformation that much harder.

This is a great concept, and any studio head would be foolish to pass on it. The trailers looked good too. It’s such a disappointment that it didn’t live up to how it’s billing. Its success is hampered by Ryan Ridley’s weak screenplay. Ridley has worked with writer Robert Kirkman before. Ridley primarily writes TV; most notably he contributes to science fiction animated adventure comedy “Rick and Morty”. There is a difference between writing for television and for the screen. Some writers can transition between both, but Ridley clearly cannot.

Renfield narrates much of the story. This is a plot device not associated with strong screenwriting. “The Shawshank Redemption” is a notable exception. In this film, Renfield explains everything through character dialogue. Nothing is ever allowed to unfold. This movie is clearly a horror/comedy; but, instead of embracing that, there are times where it feels like the director and writer cannot decide between one and the other. The script also introduces supporting characters that disappear from the story without explanation. This might have been a post-production choice, making the responsibility fall into the director’s lap.

Sometimes an experienced director can save a poor script while in the process of filming. Chris McKay is best known for directing the “Lego Batman Movie” which was great and “The Tomorrow War” for Amazon Prime, which was not warmly received. This was not the project for him as several the creative choices he made failed to translate to this effort.

For example, in the action scene when Renfield fights off gang members, there are some fun gory moments. However, all the sequences are accompanied with a trash metal song that seems out of place. It takes the audience out of the moment. Gags like a person losing both arms to a serving tray are funny, but would have worked so much better with the right musical accompaniment. Also, some of those gore effects are clearly visual effects, which also takes us out of those moments. In addition, there are scenes where there clearly was some tension that could have been built, but McKay fails to capture it.

“Renfield” has a very talented cast, but Chris McKay does not get the most out of them. Nicolas Cage gives an over-the-top performance as Dracula. That should not be a surprise. However, in this case it’s not a “good” over-the-top performance. It feels too broad and it plays out fast. Awkwafina is a very gifted comedic actress, but she has proven (in such films as The Farewell”) that her skills go beyond comedies. In “Redfield”, she plays a hard-nosed, no-nonsense cop with an axe to grind. However, it appears that both in the script and by how she was directed that she didn’t know if she should be playing the straight man or delivering laughs. A lot of talent goes wasted here.

If anything, “Renfield” does deliver laughs. Given the marketing that has accompanied the film, it should do very well. It’s just a shame such a great concept does not deliver what was promised.

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