Sunday, July 16, 2023

Renfield (2023)

I can remember the first time I met Count Dracula.  I might have been no more than six to eight years old.  At the time, I was being carted around by my folks in between a business errand, and we had some free time so they let me step into one of those old, now long defunct brick and mortar indie bookstores.  What made this place unique is that it was one of those bookseller-toy shop combos that I don't think you see much of these days.  Progress, and all that, especially where a person's childhood is concerned.  Because: reasons, or so say the "grown ups", anyway.  Whatever the case, I was browsing around the book racks and these quaint looking Playmobile display cases.  At some point I wandered around to a small corner bookcase, tucked away somewhere near the glass windows at the front of the store, and there he was, glaring balefully out at the reader from the cover of an old, children's beginning reader's edition.  The pale ashen face, those eyes that have a way of boring into your skull.  And then of course, there was the mouth pulled back into a feral snarl, revealing those deadly sharp teeth.  No question about it, I was eye to eye with one of the indisputable greatest icons in the entire history of the Horror story.  A legend, in essence.  And yet here he was, presenting his story in a way that was sure to capture a young genre fan's attention.

It was copy of a book series whose imprint was known as Ladybird Classics.  Has any veteran reader out in the audience ever heard of these?  They were really no more than just one in a long line of what might be labeled as Junior Primers.  I think you still see variations on the format to this day.  It's little more than an attempt to instill in the child an interest in the great classics of literature.  The way they do it is by packaging them in a format that youngsters can understand.  In that sense, a book like Bram Stoker's Dracula is a natural candidate for this type of venture.  It's the kind of narrative that has all the right ingredients for a built-in page turner about it.  Yes, it's one of (perhaps even the) premiere works of Gothic Supernatural fiction.  Yet the way its written, along with how the actions builds and progresses as the plot unfolds makes it one of the great "ripping yarns" of old capital L Literature.  In many ways, despite all the critical readings that have raised its esteem in the public's eye throughout the years, the essential seems to remain that behind all the book's Gothic trappings and machinery, what Stoker has given the public is something that is very much a kid's own adventure novel.  It's almost like a dark, modern day version of a fairy tale, complete with heroes, a villain, and and incredible quest.

In other words, it's exactly the kind of story that can survive, and even thrive from being condensed into an easy to read format for children.  I just turned out to be one of the lucky recipients that day.  I bugged my parents to get the children's version, and they proved just how good sports they were by letting me take it home, where I immediately dived into the pages.  Perhaps it's only in retrospect that we recognize whatever Rubicons might exist in our lives.  It took a while before I began to look back on my life as a reader (and hence the ultimate reason for this blog, I suppose), and it wasn't perhaps until just now (as I write this, in other words) that I begin to realize just how much of a turning point the choice of picking up that old, by now defunct Ladybird edition of Stoker's novel really was.  

In fact, I've just realized something.  It was a few years after reading through that Junior version that I soon began to take greater strides in the kind of author's I read.  Not long after that Ladybird book, I found out about Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, followed not long afterwards by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and from there it was on the to the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, and Ray Bradbury.  In other words, I'd watched, listened to, or paged through some titles in the Horror genre before then.  Yet with the exception of Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, most of it was geared toward younger audiences.  That Ladybird edition might have been the first one that encouraged the reader to aim higher, to venture further up and further in to the type of more mature stories that were out there, waiting to be read. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that this was the book that showed me it was possible to expand my tastes in terms of reading material, that I lot of what I liked as a child could still following along with me as I grew into adulthood (whatever that it), and would always provide me with some type of companionship through the years.  At least there's one other explanation of why I continue to enjoy reading of things that go bump in the night even after all this time.  And I suppose this means I have the figure of Count Dracula to thank for everything that's come along since that day in the little toy shop.

That's quite the feat for a literary monster whose really supposed to be the villain of his own story.  In a way, time has been both cruel and kind of to Stoker's greatest creation over the years.  He's been kept alive (or undead for those in the know) in the public consciousness ever since the character's ink and paper debut way back in 1897.  Since then, the character's proliferation in popular media is perhaps best described as a mixed blessing of abundant generosity.  Even people who've never read the book or seen any of the films have at least this curious working knowledge of who the Count is, seemingly based on little more than the general grapevine of pop cultural awareness.  It's a form of ubiquity that few Set Texts are able to garner in a life where the only constants are either change, or at least the nagging desire to get away from something.  This makes Stoker's creation nothing less than a genuine achievement, both artistic, and otherwise.  For those who don't know of the world's most famous vampire from the original source material, there remains several shelves worth of movie adaptation to choose from.

These movies appear to span the entirety of the history of cinema, from its beginnings in the Silent Era with F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) all the way up to the current film we'll be looking at today.  There's even been a recent indie attempt (made with the cooperation of the Stoker Family estate) to recreate the original Victorian novel in the style of the Digital Diary Unfiction format.  This kind of makes sense if you go back to the book, and realize its entire narrative (and even the title character himself) is made or composed of a series of fictional letters, newspaper clippings, and personal journal entries written by various members of the story's cast.  It might not seem like much.  In fact, the whole conceit of a novel written in such a fashion might even seem quaint to those who don't pay close attention to the nature of what they're reading.  That's when the details tell an intriguing story. 

Any pop culture nerd whose also a dedicated bookworm, probably can't help noticing that what Stoker has done in those pages is to craft a narrative which is told in what was, for the time, the only known form of documentary storytelling that human beings were capable of at that particular moment of history.  It was the equivalent of what Sanchez and Myrick did when they schlepped a crew and a couple of battered Circuit City cameras into the backwoods of Maryland, and created the Blair Witch Project.  Looked at from this perspective, it is perhaps just possible to say that you can have Bram Stoker to thank for that.  As he's given us an example of one of the very first Found Footage stories ever told in a successful, full-length format.  That's not too shabby for a two centuries old pulp novel.

The say that the Count and his story has been a trail blazer, in these sense, is a bit of an understatement.  Out of all the adaptations ever made of Stoker's book, however, it has fallen to just a handful of films to stand out as the best remembered examples of that epistolary novel's legacy.  Aside from the Murnau film mentioned above, the other two notables are the star making turns done by Bela Lugosi's Universal Studios classic of 1931, along with Christopher Lee's breakout performance as the King Vampire a decade or so later in 1958.  There also seems to be a small cult following for the Francis Ford Coppola version from the 90s, featuring Lee Harvey Oswald and one half of Bill and Ted, from The Matrix.  

However, that's a venture that still seems to exist within the twin shadows cast first by Lee, and yet more so by the figure of Lugosi's pop cultural osmosis performance.  In between exists the honorable mentions (such as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Monster Squad, two very respectable and fun entries in their own right), and the cheap knock offs, such as the later sequels and cash ins that Lee wound up having to do in order to just stay in the acting industry, and which he always looked back on in shame and derision as unworthy of Horror as a genre altogether.  The latest entry we're here to look at was the brainchild of none other than the Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman.

Somewhere along the way, it seems as if his mind turned from the subject of Walkers, to that of vampires.  Specifically, his imagination seems to have got caught on a very particular creative hook found within the overall myth.  To be specific, Kirkman got to thinking about what it must be like to be the servant of the world's most famous vampire, and that seems to be the beginning of the story.

The Story.

Hello, my name is Robert.  And, like many of you here today, I guess you could say I'm trying to look for some good advice, or maybe just flat out help is the better word to use.  I have a..."problem", you see.  I'm trying to get out of a toxic relationship.  It's work related, nothing personal.  It's just I have this boss who...It's like being stuck in a nightmare, really.......You know what, maybe I'd better start things at the beginning.  My full name is Robert Montague Renfield.  I am, or was, once upon a time, a solicitor with a very profitable firm in London.  I've moved on since then, as you can probably guess.  Though I'm still surprised how all of that keeps managing to cast a reflection in the rear view mirror, even after such a...a very long time....Anyway.  The day that changed my life arrived when my firm received the commission to execute the purchase of an estate located in Purfleet.  And yes, that's the name of an actual town, by the way, you can look it up.  It's just to the north of London.  My firm had done business in the area before, yet never on a job as big as this was.  The estate up for purchase was known as Carfax Abbey.  I'm not real sure of this detail (it's been such a long time, you see), however I think it might have been an actual monastery at one point, At least up until the dissolution via Henry VIII.

Whatever the case, the place was big, huge, Gothic, abandoned, and it was up for sale and my firm was the one that got rights to the securing the deal.  I was just a fresh face to the world of Real Estate at the time.  My story up to then was one of at least potential success.  It wasn't long after I'd successfully graduated from Uni.  I'd married my life-long sweetheart.  I was the father a very welcome daughter, and now I was making my start at climbing life's great ladder.  When the Carfax account landed in the firm's hand, I was the one who campaigned the loudest for a chance at what sounded like a big break.  The one I'd been hoping for.  The deal which would cement me and family's future forever.  As luck would have it, I got the assignment.  When it landed on my desk I phoned the wife up and practically shouted the good news at her.  That night the entire family dined a bit more expensively than we could perhaps afford, yet all spirits were high, and our shared future together seemed just on the horizon.

So like a fool I packed my bags, made a little business trip (snickers) to the meet the prospective buyer.  I met the um, "gentleman" in question.  The deal was sealed, my fortune was made, and just like that, everything went to hell.  It's kind of funny, really.  You can even make a literal joke of it the more you think things over. Go-to-hell.  It's all quite amusing don't you think?  Isn't that funny!!?....Erm, yes, well, as you might have guessed, this is the part where it all gets...sort of complicated.  I'm, er, no longer in the soliciting business for the record.  It didn't happen almost overnight, or anything like that.  It's just that everything that happened afterwards seems to encompass such a short and hectic span of time.  At least that's how it all seems to be how I recall it.  The way the worst years of my life began was with the prospective buyer (now I guess you'd call him the former owner) of Carfax Abbey (he's...we have moved on since then).

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize it didn't start all at once, yet make no mistake.  It was my boss who set this whole thing in motion.  I used to have a normal life, and now I'm stuck at the beck and call of my current employer.  What's he like?  Well, I guess you could say he comes from, or rather he is the literal product of what you might call "Old Money".  Would believe me if I told you he technically counts (snickers), um, as a member of the aristocracy?  Well, you may laugh, and perhaps you're right.  Maybe that sort of thing went out with the Dodo a long time ago.  At the very least, maybe it should have.  Though if you stop and give it a thought you'll realize it's not so out the ordinary in this day, even when it probably should be.  I mean after all, we've still got the House of Lords back in England, and that's a country where a lot of the old Manor Houses dot the countryside.  So really, what makes my boss any different?  He's never talked about his family much, although he likes to brag a lot (quite a great deal, in fact) about their so called "glory days".  From the way he goes on about the topic, this seems to mean his family tree stretches all the way back to Romania at or about the 15th century, if I've got the math right.  Or at least these are the best guesses I can make based on what I can go by.

Apparently his folks were quite influential back then.  To say that he's proud of his roots doesn't do him justice.  Which I suppose is a polite way of saying that he's got an ego the size of several Mack Trucks.  That's one of his many bad qualities, though it's by no means the worst, as you'll see if you keep listening.  In order to make you understand what I'm talking about, a bit more of the history of our working partnership is in order.  I said I'd gone to make a real estate deal with him for the sole reason of making both a name and a life for myself.  My entire family were initially included in all of these plans.  It wasn't too long after the purchase of Carfax, however, that those plans began to change, in all the worst kinds of ways.  Though the irony is that it didn't seem like that was the direction things were headed, at first.  At the start, it seemed like all the plans and ambitions I ever could have had for my life were coming true.  You see, when I'd "helped" my employer settle into his new estate, the first thing he did was to seek me out with the promise of furthering my career in the world.  All that would be required was my services for a few, "menial task" as you might call them, and in exchange, my boss would help my star rise in society.  And for a time it seemed like I'd found my way to Easy Street.

In the beginning, my boss was as good as his word.  He was able to take a lower middle class clerk and grant me and (for a time, at least) even the misses and our child into the realms of the upper classes that I think most of those in my position up till then had only ever dreamed about.  It's strange, I know.  After all, Nero was a man who had everything, and it killed him in the end.  That still doesn't appear to stop a lot of individuals from thinking if they can just reach that same level that everything will be solved.  I know that's what my employer still believes, at any rate.  I did say he had an ego, correct?  Well during those first few years, that wasn't all he had.  It turns out there were plenty of clout and connections to be made, even miles away from his homeland.  Let's just say it helps to get a leg up in the world if you have recognized member of the ruling classes putting in a good word for you in all the high places.  For the first time ever, I was permitted into the fanciest restaurants, the best seats in the theatre, the most celebrated galas.  You've no idea what it's like to be able to afford Harrods.  My daughter thought she'd found the key to Alice's Wonderland.  At any rate, this is how it all started.

Things have changed in that time, as they always do.  The world has moved on, and so have my boss and I.  Here we are, as it turns out.  Both of us miles away from our homes and family.  You could almost say it feels like literal centuries since I've seen my wife and child.  In fact, if I'm being honest, I've been having difficulty recalling what they look like.  In Fanny's case, all I have left if the image of a little girl with an empty blank space where a face should be, running towards me in Kensington Park with her hands out-stretched.  There are no lines in the palms of those fragile little hands.  Let that stand as an example of the kind of damage my boss is capable of, and you'll see how my lonely life has unfolded over the years.  Now you've begun to get some idea of how bad things have become, anyway.  

Even that's not the worst part.  My employer is one of life's literal leeches, if that makes any sense.  He's a King Bloodsucker if there ever was one.  It's true he's an expert at ruining lives with just a simple invitation, yet that still doesn't get at the heart of the matter.  To call my boss powerful is a bit like saying that the launch of the Challenger space shuttle was just a bit off in its calculations.  He's perhaps the most capably destructive person I've ever met in what are many a long years.  Here's the worst part.

It isn't that he can enter a room without you noticing him (until it's too late, that is).  It isn't that he keeps odd hours, or has bad feeding habits, and next to non-existent table manners.  It's not even the fact that he's one of life's great leeches in human form.  You want to know what the worst part of all this has been?  It's that my employer has always been good at getting into other people's heads, my own included.  He's always had this uncanny knack of finding out just where it is you live, whatever spot there is in the mind where identity and choice more or less merge into one single character, and then he starts to play you like a violin of his own choosing once he reaches that particular mental place.  I know it seems trite to claim the worst thing about my boss is that he's a manipulator.  Though I'll swear that's only because you've never been on the receiving end of the kind of abuse he's able to dish out whenever he gets cross.  That goes double for whenever you've royally fucked up any of his plans, even if you never meant to.  To call my employer a manipulator is to do him too much of a kindness.  Hell, he'd probably take that as mere flattery.  He's the most twisted master puppeteer that you could ever meet.

He'll con you.  Get into your head.  Turn into the worst kind of junkie you can imagine (and trust me, needles and pills are as nothing to what this "gentleman" can get you hooked on).  He'll make you ruin your life of your own free will.  And if you ever have a bout of conscience, and begin to think of trying to run from it all, he'll be right there to make you turn around and come crawling back, because there's no other place left to go.  My name is R.M. Renfield, and I am the familiar of Count Vladimir Tepesh Dracula.  And if anybody out there is reading this, I have just one request.  Please send help, fast.  

Conclusion: A Pretty Decent Piece of Modern Day Schlock. 

This is one of those films that came and went, like the proverbial flash in the pan.  There was a brief amount of buzz generated during the lead up to its release.  I can recall being both stunned and and bemused as hell when the first trailer for the film dropped way back in perhaps what was April or May of this year of writing.  I can recall thinking I was looking at one of the most ridiculous things I'd ever seen, yet at the same time, a little reflection made me realize that with a career like Nicolas Cage's, there was also perhaps something of an inevitability to a project like this.  In the strictest sense, this isn't even the first time Mr. Face/Off has starred in a movie concerned with vampirism.  Way back in 1989, one of Cage's breakout starring vehicles was a rather twisted "Romantic" (the word should be used very loosely, to not at all) Comedy titled Vampire's Kiss.  It's been labeled as "what could quite possibly be his craziest performance in a career full of crazy performances (web)".  That was a film were it seemed as if the actor was always on the verge of tilting into being his own, personal Renfield (unless the whole thing was just in his head).  It's the film that Cage has often cited as the favorite of all the movies he's ever done (web).  It's also where this meme comes from.  Because: he's Nicolas Cage, I guess.

Yeah, in order to get the elephant in the room out of the way, perhaps the best way to describe the career of Francis Ford Coppola's nephew (yes, really, as if he couldn't get any weirder) is that it's pretty clear what we're dealing with here is one of life's most notable, self-styled eccentrics.  In other words, I think it helps to make sense of the life-long quirk that has become Cage's entire cinematic career if you realize that all the goofy clown has been doing this whole time is to choose a kind of "out there" shtick as a personal public strategy.  It's something that he's always banked on as a means of keeping his career afloat in show business.  It's the same kind of public persona, in fact, that has been donned not once but twice before to more or less good effect, by actors such as Jeff Goldblum, and Tim Curry.  I think the real difference between the three of them is that Goldblum and Curry know just as much when it's better to dial down the theatrical antics just as much as they're smart enough to known when over the top is called for.  It's this delicate balance of oddity that that each of them seems to have mastered, and yet it appears this is the main acting trick that Cage seems to struggle with.  The result is kind of telling.  Where the other two artists are recalled fondly, people still scratch their heads at Cage.

Then again, maybe even this can be said to work in his favor.  I mean, after all, no matter how bizarre his behavior, or the films he's done, he's still managed to get crowds and critics talking about him.  I mean, that's got to some kind of achievement, right?  I just hope it's the kind he was always banking for.  Because if not, I've never seen an actor so dedicated to having egg all over his face.  So you want to know the really weird twist?  The funny thing is how even with all this in mind, it's still possible to claim that Cage has it in him to be a good actor.  Indeed, when he's focused on the job, and has a good script to work with (and yes, believe it or not, this has happened on occasion) then he's got what it takes.  All of which begs the question of just how well the artist from Mars fares in this picture?

The first thing that has to be made clear is that a film like this almost requires a kind of psychological loyalty oath.  By that I mean whether or not you like this story depends on how well either your tolerance, or else your genuine enjoyment of cinematic schlock is, or how far you're willing to go with that kind of story.  I brought up Tim Curry a moment ago, and perhaps the type of roles he's famous for can act a measure of where the audience's sympathies lie in their indulgence of material that is always a bit too ridiculous to ever be taken one hundred percent seriously.  There's no way you can go into this flick with the same expectations you would take with you to a film like The Departed.  We're not talking a high list A movie by any stretch of the imagination.  Instead, this is the kind of picture that doesn't think twice about having the protagonist rip the arms off a bad guy using the some of the most deliberately fake CGI you can muster, and then turning around and using them as nunchucks and or clubs in order to fight off a whole herd of gun wielding maniacs.  Did you get all that okay?

Does any of it make sense?  That answer to that last one is of course it doesn't.  Did the description at least sound kind of fun?  If you've found somewhere in your heart the capability of saying that it might at least sound like an amusing show to take in, then this could just be the type of film that was tailor made for you.  If you find it easy to imagine the original Pennywise the Clown partaking in that kind of a Kill Bill lite scene, then you might have just come to the right place.  The Dracula character has seen many cinematic afterlives, and some of them have been pretty darn schlocky.  This film is no exception to that rule, and while I suppose its possible to conjure up an alternative version of this plot where it takes the examination of the Renfield/Vampire dynamic in a much more serious and sole searching direction, I can't help but wonder if such a creative choice would leave the audience bored to tears.

Dracula is as much a figure of fun as he is of terror.  This is something that a lot of his fans have been well aware of through literal generations.  In fact, it's kind of something he shares in common with fellow Horror icons such as the aforementioned Pennywise, or Uncle Freddy Krueger.  All three have wound up on the same shelf space that lets audiences know it might be possible to have a great deal of imaginative fun (strange as it may sound for a Scary Story) with the type of creative potential you can have with such characters.  A lot of that comes down to what might sound like a paradox, yet it's a really a formula that's been tested and proven true time and again.  I guess the best way to express it is that it all hinges on what might be termed the level of "charm" or "personality" that comes attached with these imaginary figures.  Another way of saying this is that Dracula, It, and Freddy are all able to remain popular with audiences due to the way they are able to win over the crowd.  All of this stems from the fact that they can sometimes be amusing, as much as they are frightening.  This appears to be something that their respective performers were able to understand and implement well in their portrayals.  The one thing Robert Englund, Bela Lugosi, and Tim Curry all have in common is that they knew just the right type of personality to grant their characters, thus winning over their audiences.

They all seem to have separately realized that it helps not just the actor, or the performance, but the complete story as a whole if you can find the right way of giving your character the appropriate bit of charm (again, for lack of a better word) that will help set the audience at ease, even as you're scaring the daylights out of them.  It's the success of artistic strategies like this that helps explain in part why so many people claim that its fun being scared.  They make this claim because they are telling the truth, and actors like Curry and Lugosi are the reason why this is the case.  They all knew that sometimes the best way to leave an impact as a cinematic monster was to try and make the frightening endearing, if that makes any sense.  The way each of them did it was by combining the unabashed monstrous aspects (the true Horror of their characters, in other words) with a few other complementary elements that help lend an added sense of weight to their characterizations.  In Lugosi's case, he seems to have been the one bring out the inherent sense of suave debonair that the Count always had in the books, yet the Hungarian actor was the first one to give its proper display.  At the same time, Bela made the smart choice to throw in an added element of the comic to his portrayal, lending the Count this creepy, somehow affable quality that Curry and Englund would later take a possible inspiration from.

The result has become a trio of Fear Icons that are able to showcase what can only be described as the proper dramatic mixture of straight forward fright tactics in harmonious conjunction with a deliberately warped, yet very genuine sense of humor.  It's not an example of the character or actor giving the audience a self-knowing meta wink at how ludicrous things are.  Instead, it's more a matter of letting the fans know that sometimes being scared on an artistic level really is all a matter of having a very authentic sense of fun and enjoyment, and it's letting everybody know that they're fundamental purpose is to be there to help share this fun with others.  I think all of that, more than anything else, is the major reason why Dracula remains such a popular character after such a long passage of time.  It's also this same sense of frenetic excitement that Renfield's director Chris McKay is able to tap into when it comes to telling this particular iteration of the popular Gothic characters.  In particular, this might be the first Dracula film to ever shine a deliberate spotlight on the Renfield character.  It's notable because he's kind of like the Gollum of Gothic fiction, if that makes any sense.  He's probably the second most remembered element of the Stoker mythos more than any other figure in the original novel itself.

What's interesting about approaching a story from this angle is kind of the fact that anyone has ever chose to really notice Renfield at all, or that they found a viable way to make him genuinely sympathetic.  The trick with literature's most famous familiar is that he's traditionally been seen in a way that's known as a popular unpopular character.  In other words, yes, there's a sense in which he's a household name, yet not because there's ever been anything necessarily likable about him up till now.  

Instead, the comparison with Gollum is rather apt.  Both are fundamentally broken individuals whose respective portrayals call to mind the state of what's it's like to be a junkie.  In other words, it's possible to read allegories of addiction, abuse (chemical or otherwise), or the problem and struggles of co-dependency.  Each character, in their own ways (which also tend to contain a great deal of eerie similarities) is at the mercy of their respective "fix", in druggie terminology.  For Gollum, it's the power and life stealing longevity that comes from handling the One Ring.  For Renfield, it's the power and lifeless immortality granted to him by "the Master".  It's even possible to argue that all the Count amounts to is what happens when you take both Sauron, and his Ring, and then combine them into a single character.

This, then, is the main burden Renfield is saddled with.  And the events of this movie are a chronicling of this servant's struggle as he, for perhaps the first time ever, tries to see if its possible to break free from one of the most toxic relationship's in the history of fiction.  This how the movie portrays things, although in all fairness, Stoker's source material has the character arrive at the exact same conclusion, and also sees him make a valiant effort to escape from the Count's control.  So while it's maybe not the most original concept that McKay and Kirkman are working with here, they are able to lend Stoker's subplot premise a greater deal of fun than it's had since the close of Monster Squad, way back in 1987.  And perhaps it's here that I should add that despite all of the heavy thematic baggage that tends to come associated with these two figures, the filmmakers are quick to recognize all the moments of light levity that can be found even in a lot of otherwise dark corners.  This is shown from the start where the entire story is being framed as a support group monologue, of sorts.  We open on Renfield situated in just such a basement share circle.  The opening makes clear just how much Renfield has in common with such issues, and the story forgrounds the underlying themes that have shaped the character's history.

In fact, it's a minor bit of literary awareness on the film's part that is so subtle, it's always going to fly under the radar of most viewers, especially those who aren't familiar the content of the Stoker book.  From there, everything kicks into full tongue and cheek mode as we follow our hapless schmuck protagonist (played this time by Nicholas Hoult) as spending an extended amount of time amongst mere mortals once more begins to stir the improbable yet beguiling notion that it might just be possible to escape from the worst possible workforce oriented relationship that any employee can ever have with a Bad Boss (brought to life this time by Nic Cage).  The premise alone carries enough amusing overtones that it's easy to see that humor can be mined from it, and this realization seems to be the creative spark for which Kirkman and McKay's project.  Needless to say, they manage to have a lot of fun with the idea.

To give just a sample.  Kirkman and Co. get a lot of humor from exploiting the lore of vampirism.  Two of the most notable instances come when Dracula tracks his erstwhile familiar down, after Renfield takes his first tentative steps at moving on from his former life as a lackey to the King of the Undead.  The main character comes home to find his very pissed off ex-boss waiting for him in his living room.  When Robert wonders how on earth Dracula could have (a) found his address, and (b) much less walked in uninvited, all Drac has to do is draw the character and the audience's attention to the fact that Renfield has carelessly left a literal Welcome Mat on his front doorstep to get one of (if not the) biggest laughs in the movie.  

It's one of several subtle nods the movie contains towards the myths that have gathered around the modern concept of the vampire, and which the film plays upon in ways that are a welcome change from the more in your face style that a lot of modern comedies have been settling for lately.  It showcases a healthy confidence that the movie has in its own comedic strategies that is refreshing from the kind of manic desperation that a lesser parody film would have felt compelled to resort to.  The problem is this is the one approach that would have sunk the story's chances, and its to Kirkman's credit that he trusts the material's inherent drollery to carry things as far as they deserve, and then no more or less.

It's this restrained, yet genuine wit that allows the film's various punchlines to have a surprising amount of weight to them (when Cage's Dracula complains that he's the real victim here, it might cause the viewer to wonder just how the character became a vampire in the first place), or else it allows the film's more deliberately outrageous moments to have a dignity they might not otherwise have had.  This has to be the first Count related film to where the full extent of Renfield's abilities as a somewhat (or relative) otherworldly servant to the forces of darkness are given anything like a proper, feature length exploration.  Here again, Kirkman takes an element of Stoker's book, and gives it an entertaining kick.  

The novel's version of Dracula's servant is presented as a bug eater and so Kirkman will up the ante by letting this habit be to the movie's Renfield what spinach is to Popeye.  All he has to do is take so much as a bite out of whatever creepy-crawly is lying within reach, and he can take down an entire room of mask wearing gunmen in just less than five minutes.  What's shocking to realize in retrospect is that the filmmakers didn't capitalize on the opportunity such a plot point would showcase for presenting Renfield's enforced eating habits in a knowing way.  Like why not have the character point out to anyone who looks at him askance that insects are considered a delicacy in some climates?  It's a missed opportunity, to some extent.  Though thankfully this all nothing more than a minor nit-pick.

The biggest laugh, however, comes in during the final showdown between the former familiar and his toxic ex-boss.  There seems to be this informal showbiz tradition which dictates that Dracula be dispatched in the most elaborate way possible.  All of which is little more than an attempt to try and honor the denouement of the original novel, which shifts gears from an ordinary Gothic novel into the kind of slam bang action set piece that wouldn't have been too out of place in an Evil Dead film.  The more things change, in other words.  Here, Kirkman and McKay do a good job of paying homage to their main inspiration, and then it's when the time comes for the Count to take his latest final bow that they get creative in a way that I won't spoil here.  Suffice to say that the last laugh of the movie comes in the form of a payoff that the director and writer show to the audience in full, and yet the it's the thematic content of the punchline that they carefully let linger in the mind of the perceptive viewer.  

The way they dispatch everyone's favorite bloodsucker is done with a sophistication that sneaks up on you in such a way that it's full impact might not hit you until after you've left the theater.  When you realize what you've seen, then the you realize the film's best laugh was saved for last.  Let's just say that the more you realize that the vampire myth is a metaphor for addiction, the more the ending will leave you in stitches.  It's not making light of a serious topic, but showcasing a clever way in which abusers can sometimes wind up paying the price for their actions by getting a taste of their own medicine.

Beyond the humor, the film is also very clever in the awareness it has of its own cinematic history.  The opening moments of the film contain a very impressive, almost seamless recreation of Tod Browning's now iconic 1931 version.  The audience is treated to the sight of Cage and Hoult digitally spliced into the same Gothic footage, as well as the exact same roles and dialogue that was originally occupied and spoken by Bela Lugosi and his co-star Dwight Frye.  The latter of whom was the original actor to bring the first major portrayal of Renfield to life on the big screen.  Together with the figure of Van Helsing, it is Frye's almost Joker like performance as the insect wielding madman that remains the other most talked about, or famous element from Browning's movie.  These are all vital background details for McKay's film, and Kirkman's story.  And both filmmakers display a canny awareness of their predecessors, and utilize the classic 1930s iteration of these characters with a respect that manages the surprising feat of actually honoring the legacy of what came before, while also finding a way to bring the cast forward into the modern day with an actual appropriate contemporary artistic expression.

I only bring that up because I'll swear it's the first time I've seen this goal done right.  Right now, in an era when Hollywood keeps blundering in its attempts to resurrect its past glories, the fact that it's a relatively minor studio B picture creature feature that manages to get it right has all kinds of satisfying ironies to it.  For instance, take the way Kirkman and Cage handle the progression of Dracula's character in this film.  There comes a point where the Lord of the Undead is left having to find a new replacement for his erstwhile, former servant.  So he finds one in the form of the matriarch of a brutal crime family.  Again, without too much in the way of spoilers, these moments are where the movie works as a pseudo-sequel to the 1931 Lugosi film, and how it really is the Lugosi version of the character that Cage seems to be channeling as the film reaches its pivitol halfway point.

This makes sense because one of the greatest ironies of Lugosi's performance is that you can still imagine him as a lady's man.  Christopher Lee's portrayal often winds up leaving the Count as little more than a feral animal with little to no social graces for the character to fall back on.  Lugosi, meanwhile, always portrayed the role as that of a master strategist who was more than capable of blending in with the crowd, or else using his air of foreign intrigue to act as a means of dominating the room.  These are all the kinds of ploys used by someone who is capable of thinking tactically in the achievement of his goals.  That's what Cage winds up doing when he finds himself in need of extra help, and its clear that all the notes the actors is taking in these moments all come from the original cinematic supernatural nobleman.  I'd also argue that Lugosi's performance as the Count is still the best, yet that's another day.  The point is that it's rare to see a film treat its own mythology with genuine respect.  That's what Kirkman and McKay do here, and you can tell they really are actual Horror fans.

At it's heart, what McKay and the Walking Dead creator have constructed is a deliberately schlocky tribute to one of the greatest set of characters in the history of Gothic fiction.  It also acts as a love letter to the Golden Age of Universal Horror Pictures.  Indeed, I wouldn't mind them releasing a special Black and White edition of this same film.  No major changes, or anything else, just turn off the color palette, heighten the contrasts a bit, then desaturate and grain the image so that it closely matches that of a film released in the 1930s.  Granted, we've also reached a point where it may one day be possible for any enterprising kid with a keyboard and the right equipment to be able to once more revive Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi from their cinematic graves, and splice them over the figures of Cage and Hoult to create an actual sequel to the 1931 gem.  It might be interesting to view the results of such an endeavor, merely as an experiment.  For the most part, however, I'm remain on the side of caution, and say let the film speak as it is.  In this case, the result is that so long as you're a fan of Classic Monster Movies, B Grade Schlock flicks, and just Horror in general, the more you'll come away enjoying a work like Renfield.  It's a love letter to a character and a genre, made by fans, and definitely for the fans.

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