” Some call me the Dark One. Others, the Lord of Death. To most, I am… Dracula!”
After nearly 90 years, the Universal horror cycle stands as one of the most enduring collection of horror movies today. Their influence on modern horror is unmistakable. There have been literally thousands of incarnations of Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster, but the first image that comes to your mind will always be the nightmare creations of those Universal films. Studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was trying to break away from his father’s control and create a studio culture of his own. The results would start in 1931 when an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi jumped from the stage to the screen in Dracula, directed by Tod Browning. Laemmle’s niece, Carla Laemmle, is the girl in the coach headed for Borgo Pass as the film opens to the musical strains from Swan Lake. She is reading a travel brochure about vampires and thus speaks the very first lines ever spoken in a horror film in the era of sound. Lugosi was mesmerizing, and the film was a hit. There was a depression on, but that didn’t stop crowds from lining up around theater blocks to be hypnotized by Lugosi’s Dracula. The cycle of horror films that followed literally saved the studio from bankruptcy by the time it had all come to an end and the horror baton was passed along to England’s House Of Hammer. Since then Universal hasn’t really known exactly what to do with these prize IP’s.
Early in this century the studio opted for generic versions of the monsters on their marketing, mostly to avoid paying recently won awards to the kids and grandchildren of the long deceased monster stars. Various film versions came and went, and still Universal had a gold mine it just didn’t know how to mine. The Mummy films with Branden Frasier came about as close as the studio appeared able, and then came along an idea called The Dark Universe. The idea was to use a Marvel-inspired shared universe and bring back the old gang of groovy monsters. Sounded like a plan. We had Russell Crowe as good old Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Johnny Depp would appear as The Invisible Man. The likes of Angelina Jolie would become the Bride Of Frankenstein. It all seemed so diabolically sweet. What could possibly go wrong? Just as for current Star Trek fans, Alex Kurtzman is what went wrong. Kurtzman is where billion-dollar franchises go to the cut-out bins to die. The first film was made with Tom Cruise, and The Mummy was about all that had to be seen to put a stake straight through the heart of Kurtzman’s nightmare. That’s all well and good. Disaster averted, but I still want my Universal Classic Monsters. To all of those faithful Children Of The Night, it looks like they may have finally arrived. Interestingly enough, salvation might just come in the form of a campy/over-th- top gore-fest called Renfield. Wait a minute. How can that be true? It goes something like this …
It has been nearly 100 years since the events we saw unfold in the 1931 film Dracula, just as it has been here in the real world. In case you require a little reminder, we get a short history lesson thanks to a brilliant prologue in the film where the Renfield (Hoult) of today fills us in. Through the use of actual elements from that film, but now with the images of Nicolas Cage and Hoult inserted into these iconic moments, we are treated to a quick Dracula-1931 refresher course. The story continues beyond that point as Renfield teaches us that for a century Dracula would have Renfield do his bidding. Eventually good guys would come along and put some serious hurt on Dracula, and then Renfield would spend decades bringing his power back online. The typical case of rinse and repeat. Now Renfield has been hunting for his master’s blood victims at a group therapy of co-dependency cases. He goes after the bad guys who hurt them and feeds Dracula these dregs of society. But Dracula’s getting a little sick of fast food. He wants something more filling, like a few nuns or a school bus full of cheerleaders. But Renfield is developing a conscience, and these sessions are having an effect on him. It all comes to a head when he finds himself in the middle of a bloodbath fight between the Lobo family run by the incompetent Ted (Schwartz) for his evil mother (Aghdashloo) and the last remaining honest cop, Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina). Renfield saves her life and ends up putting Dracula in the middle of this drug-lord-and-cop war.
Quincy convinces Renfield to settle down in a place of his own, a cheerful new apartment, abandoning Dracula to his derelict old mental hospital. That doesn’t sit well with the Count, who joins forces with the drug cartel to try his hand at world domination. Meanwhile Renfield is kind of falling for Quincy, and he’s also started to have feelings for the therapy folks. So Dracula goes into massacre mode and forces Renfield to make some tough choices.
” You know when something crazy happens and someone’s like, “It’s okay. I’ve seen way worse?” Everything I saw you do today is gonna be my “way worse.”
The result is one of the more interesting mash-ups of film styles I’ve seen in years. While almost none of this film is original, the pieces fit together in something quite original and a hell of a lot of fun. You get John Wick kind of action where Renfield takes out a gang with scissors and a straw. He’s John Wick and MacGyver all wrapped up in one guy. The blood is so over-the-top I think it might make Tarantino blush a little. There’s endless body parts being ripped apart with gushers of blood. It’s the goriest film you’ve seen in years. Once again, it’s all in such great fun.
Amid all of this madness are two incredible performances. Nicolas Cage has said for decades that the three roles he always wanted to play were Superman, Captain Nemo, and Dracula. And while he’s actually had a couple of stabs at vampire camp, this is his first attempt at the big guy himself. (I wonder if he gets 10%?) Cage creates something truly his own here. There are times when he has Bela Lugosi nailed solid. There are others he’s become more of the feral Max Schrek from the silent film Nosferatu, which was an unauthorized film on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was ordered destroyed, but thanks to a few law-breakers along the way the film has been saved and is treasured and enjoyed to this day. There’s a paradox here that I don’t quite understand. Cage is incredibly over-the-top at times. He’s hamming it up to the point that both Adam West and William Shatner look like serious actors. But all the while, no matter how campy the performance, it is at every moment in time compelling. I dare you to look away. The truth is this is the best performance of Cage’s life. It’s worthy of mention come awards time, although I doubt very much that will happen. He deserves it, however, but as Clint taught us so many years ago: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Then there is Nicholas Hoult. This is not new territory for Hoult. He looks much like the star-crossed zombie in love from Warm Bodies. But here he has a part with far more action. The original Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, was allowed “small” lives by Dracula. These flies and spiders were enough to keep him immortal but not give him the strength and will power of his master. Here these little creatures are more like a can of spinach to Popeye. He pops a spider in his mouth, and his eyes light up with fire and he can go into that John Wick mode. So he carries around a little matchbox filled with little bugs to pep him up when he has to take out a couple hundred bad guys or so.
The film moves along at a good clip, and none of the tight 93 minutes are wasted. The character development must come along the way, and these folks are pretty much archetypes anyway with Lobo doing his best Al Pacino Tony Montana imitation along the way. It’s all a lot of fun, and director Chris McKay shows his obvious love for the source material. Recently I wrote about my experience at The Super Mario Brothers Movie where I didn’t get the Easter eggs and homage moments. Everyone around me got them all. This time I was the guy who caught all the little nods, like a police captain named Browning. What a turnaround that was.
I love these films, and spoofs and jokes don’t often sit right with me. But this stuff is brilliant. It spoofs the classic horror films as well as several other genres, but it also manages the respect I need to feel to go along with the jokes. This is the best Universal Classic Monster idea to come along in forever. Just let me check on that stake they gave Kurtzman so that I know he’s not rising up to get involved, and I might start getting upbeat again for the franchise. Bring on those ideas. Let Kurtzman continue to ruin Star Trek. I like my monsters just the way they are, please. You see? This is why I love this job. “Better hours. Better pay. Better parking space. How does that sound to you?”