Review | ‘Renfield’: Silly vampire comedy has its moments, most of them bloody

(2 stars)

The end of the studio rom-com era has taken many tolls, not least on the career of Nicholas Hoult, who with the right movies could have been his generation’s Hugh Grant — a baton-passing anticipated in Hoult’s breakout turn alongside the older actor 20-plus years ago in “About a Boy.” As a grown-up, Hoult has proved his comic chops in the scathingly ahistoric Hulu series “The Great.” In “Renfield,” he demonstrates the same gifts — and pours on the charisma — in a goofy, disposable genre exercise that’s heavier on the bloodletting than the heart-throbbing.

There’s a rom-com buried somewhere in “Renfield,” to be sure. As the title character, Hoult plays a World War I-era lawyer who has traveled to Transylvania to seek his fortune in real estate; while there, he crosses paths with a wealthy recluse named Count Dracula (Nicolas Cage), who promises eternal life to Renfield in exchange for becoming Dracula’s servant. (All of this is explained at crackerjack speed in a vintage-looking black-and-white montage.)

Now more than a century old, Renfield has fetched up in New Orleans, where he’s tasked with finding fresh prey for his bloodsucking boss (who prefers the innocent life force of happy couples, nuns, unsuspecting tourists and cheerleaders), and where he has begun attending self-help meetings for codependency. He also meets-not-very-cute with a NOLA police officer named Rebecca (Awkwafina), whose vendetta against a local crime family entangles her with Dracula’s own evil enterprise.

Directed by Chris McKay from a script written by Ryan Ridley and Robert Kirkman, “Renfield” plays like one big inside joke, with Renfield’s crisp English narration interrupted at precise intervals by scenes of gory, squishy, spurting and head-exploding mayhem. The hyper-violence, which only grows more repetitive as it increases in velocity and viscosity, is balanced somewhat by genuinely funny sequences, when “Renfield’s” core of absurdism and sweetness manages to peek through. It’s hard to hold anything against a silly, 90-minute-long pulp-fest that gets in some sick burns about ska music and crappy bosses.

Still, the frenetic, close-up-heavy aesthetic — whoever photographed “Renfield” must have graduated from the Garden Hose School of Cinematography — becomes monotonous and boringly gross over time, and despite Hoult’s most appealing efforts, even someone of his native charm can’t generate much believable chemistry with Awkwafina, who spends most of the movie in a grumpy, slump-shouldered scowl.

Although Hoult does an admirable job of lightly carrying his title-role duties in “Renfield,” the real draw of the movie is Cage, who with films like “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is making the most of twitting his own screen persona. It’s assumed that when an actor plays Dracula, he will channel Bela Lugosi, whose slicked-back hair and cape are invoked with a dutiful nod. Still, Cage makes the role his own: Camping it up behind trowels of sickly greenish makeup, barely understandable with a mouth full of filed-down fangs, he doesn’t resemble Lugosi as much as Marilyn Manson auditioning for “Nosferatu.”

Nicolas Cage has seen your memes. He wants you to see his work.

It’s all an extravagant, occasionally amusing jape, and perfectly suited to Cage’s acting style, which has always been more suited to old-school German expressionism than the subtleties of American naturalism. Cheesy, strident, ridiculous and sometimes disarmingly, stupidly funny, “Renfield” doesn’t go for the jugular as much as give it a playful and quickly forgotten love bite.

R. At area theaters. Contains bloody violence, some gore, strong language throughout and some drug use. 93 minutes.

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