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New horror comedy 'Renfield' is about Count Dracula's long-suffering servant

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Every good villain needs an assistant - right? - somebody to carry out their evil plans. One of the biggest, baddest villains of all time, Bram Stoker's Dracula, has got Renfield, a sniveling wretch who does whatever the legendary vampire commands him to do. A new horror comedy film opened this weekend. It's called "Renfield," and this time, the assistant becomes the hero. Nicholas Hoult plays Renfield in modern day New Orleans as he tries to extricate himself from his very toxic relationship with his bad boss, played by Nicolas Cage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RENFIELD")

NICOLAS CAGE: (As Dracula) Renfield, bring me innocent victims. I want a handful of nuns, a bus load of cheerleaders.

NICHOLAS HOULT: (As Renfield) And I just want a normal life again.

MARTÍNEZ: That's what we all want. Glen Weldon hosts NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and he's here to place this new film in context. Glen, thanks for being here.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: (Imitating Dracula) Ah, it's great to be here.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter) A perfect way to start. Now, OK, so they made this movie from the sidekick's point of view, which is one way to breathe some life into this old Dracula story, I mean, in theory anyway, right? I mean, that's the idea, I would imagine.

WELDON: Yeah. Yeah, it is an old story. And they do throw some nods into the OG 1931 "Dracula" film, in which Renfield was played by the great Dwight Frye. And that dude went big, so big that it still kind of defines how Renfield gets depicted on screen. And if you know that 1931 film, there's this one shot of Renfield staring up at us from the hold of the ship that brought Dracula to England. He's staring up at us. He's grinning like a freak. And he is laughing in - well, let's just call it a very distinctive way. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DRACULA")

DWIGHT FRYE: (As Renfield, laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that is a big slab of creep...

WELDON: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...That has been laid down there. Yeah.

WELDON: Yeah. And that performance is so big that it's set in stone the two things that - if you know anything about Renfield, here's the two things you know. One, he eats bugs. And two, that laugh. And other actors who've played Renfield have just basically copied it. Here's a couple examples.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE AT FIRST BITE")

ARTE JOHNSON: (As Renfield) If you're hungry, Master, we could ring for the night maid. (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT")

PETER MACNICOL: (As Renfield) Don't be afraid. (Laughter).

WELDON: That is Arte Johnson and Peter MacNicol in "Love At First Bite" and "Dracula: Dead And Loving It," respectively.

MARTÍNEZ: So OK. So in this new film, does Nicholas Hoult go big? I mean, does he do the laugh? Does he go for it?

WELDON: Yeah, well, he's playing a kind of depressed, disillusioned version of Renfield. And when we meet him, he's kind of meek and buttoned up. But they do recreate scenes from the 1931 "Dracula" film, including that scene with Renfield in the ship laughing that Dwight Frye laugh. Now, I don't have the clip of that for you, but trust me, he brings it. He does it well. And he also eats plenty of bugs in this movie, like any good Renfield would, only in this movie, eating bugs gives him superpowers because it's 2023. And I guess that's how we're doing things now.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, people eat bugs these days. I mean, it's a delicacy, from what I've been told. Now, when you and your panel of guests reviewed "Renfield" for Pop Culture Happy Hour, you all kind of came down kind of meh the film. Is that fair to say that it was kind of a universal decision, that it was a meh movie?

WELDON: Yeah. I mean, the movie is fine. It does What it says it's going to do on the box. It is pretty gory, which a lot of people want from a vampire film. And Cage is going full ham as Dracula, it may shock you to learn. But the best thing about it is that premise, this toxic relationship between Renfield and Dracula. But in the end, we just get a lot of jokes about co-dependency. We don't get nearly enough time with Hoult and Cage sharing the screen because that relationship is what's interesting. And the film just doesn't seem to want to trust that.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Glen Weldon hosts NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast.

Glen, thanks a lot.

WELDON: (Imitating Renfield laughter). My pleasure. (Imitating Renfield laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FERNANDO GERMANI PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "TOCCATA AND FUGUE IN D MINOR, BWV565") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.