“Renfield” is not Nicolas Cage’s first blush with a vampire.
In 1988′s “Vampire’s Kiss,” he played a New York literary agent who thought he was an immortal bloodsucker. His bug-eyed performance was essentially the birth of the over-the-top, kabuki-inflected mythology of Cage. Years later, it would launch a thousand memes — a kind of digital version of becoming undead.
Thirty-five years later with “Renfield,” Cage is finally playing the genuine article, complete with bloodthirsty fangs and a dapper velvet smoking jacket. Casting Cage, our grandest of ghouls, as Dracula is so predestined that it almost risks being too on the nose. The good news is that, no, he’s perfect as Dracula. The bad news is that Cage’s Dracula is only a supporting role here, making “Renfield” more of a tasty morsel than a satisfying feast.
That’s no discredit to Nicholas Hoult, who plays Bram Stoker’s devoted henchman to Dracula in Chris McKay’s “Renfield,” which opens in theaters Friday. The film, penned by Ryan Ridley, fashions Robert Montague Renfield less as Dracula’s doting, “yes Master” lackey than a distinctive and sensitive person — or kinda person; his supernatural powers are sustained, for some reason, by eating bugs — in his own right. “Renfield,” a fast and loose horror-comedy splattered top to bottom with blood, is about Renfield trying to break free of Dracula’s fearsome sway — “a destructive relationship” as Renfield describes in a self-help group.
It’s a nifty enough idea (Robert Kirkman gets a story by credit) that the filmmakers have wisely chosen not to over complicate. Even though “Renfield” features a monster with growing desires for world domination and an alarming number of exploding human heads, the stakes are low in this Dracula spinoff. The tone is antic and blood-splattery, slotting in closer to a gory, middle-of-the-road “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode than, say, the wittier “What We Do in the Shadows.”
Vampires have been in vogue for some time, but usually in more extrapolated interpretations with greater sympathies for vampires — elegant, sexy or childlike — as worldly outsiders. Edging closer to Dracula, himself, has been rarer, and it’s probably a sign of the lesser, shlocky ambitions of “Renfield” that he still remains off to the side. But whenever Cage’s Prince of Darkness is around, the movie has a bite.
Cage, returning to major studio territory after an often thrilling, sometimes befuddling decade in indie pastures, is, as always, fully prepared for the moment. The actor, long a devoted fan of F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” channels some of the classic interpretations of Dracula — including Bela Lugosi, over whom Cage is superimposed in an early flashback taken from 1931′s “Dracula” — while animating the character with his own comic, campy rhythm. It may be worth the price of admission to see Cage’s Dracula let out a brief “Woo!” while awakening to a new sense of himself as a god.
Yet “Renfield” oddly gravitates away from tapping this rich vein to instead consume the New Orleans-set film with not just R.M.’s bid for personal freedom but a busy plot involving a local crime family and police corruption. Awkwafina co-stars as Rebecca Quincy, an honest traffic cop who wants to avenge her father’s death and bring justice to the Lobo family, a drug-dealing gang led by the matriarch Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo), with her less sharp son, Teddy (Ben Schwartz), among the lieutenants.
It’s easy to see the purpose in some of this: Bring in some funny people to populate the backdrop for Renfield’s attempted succession from Dracula duties (which consist mostly of bringing him fresh corpses, preferably of more innocent blood). Awkwafina is a welcome presence with her own comedy chops. But by trying to amp things up, McKay, the director of “The Tomorrow War” and “The Lego Batman Movie,” loses what ought to have been the film’s focus.
Still, “Renfield” is enjoyable enough in a disposable sort of way. A lack of self-seriousness is a quality to be appreciated in any movie like this. And Hoult manages to be remarkably sweet while at the same time using human limbs to decapitate other victims. Some of the best scenes are of him sitting in on a support group meeting to talk through toxic relationships. (Brandon Scott Jones, who plays the group’s leader, is quite good.) But “Renfield” never lets Cage really sink his teeth into the movie, leaving us still hungry for more.
“Renfield,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for bloody violence, some gore, language throughout and some drug use. Running time: 93 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP