Renfield Rips Christianity Out of Vampire Movies

By Jonathan Leaf Published on April 26, 2023

Can you imagine a Batman movie without the Batmobile? Or a Superman picture in which we never see a shard of Kryptonite? If either of those strike you as peculiar, you may be thrown by the new movie Renfield, which opened last week. (It’s a mindless R-rated film, which The Stream is in no way recommending.)

This is a version of the Dracula tale in which rosaries and crosses never make an appearance. Director Chris McKay and screenwriter Ryan Ridley have scrupulously removed nearly all of the references to Christianity, the structure upon which the Dracula story traditionally depends.

Why have they done this?

In a recent interview with the Digital Fix website, the director explained his intentions:

What attracted me to this movie is this idea of Dracula being a narcissist, and that it didn’t feel too far of a leap for Dracula to be the boss from hell. That there could be a movie through the lens of his assistant, a movie that could be about codependency. We talk about therapy a lot these days in pop culture, in modern culture — we talk about toxic workplace environments. And we’re thinking a lot about that and talking a lot about that and how we treat each other.

Hollywood Finds Faith Problematic

In other words, the movie is reflective of the Hollywood psyche: one in which there is no such thing as evil, or God and the devil.

To be fair to McKay, the movie plays the theme of Dracula as an ill-tempered boss as a running gag, and it is sometimes a rather amusing one. Central to this are scenes in which Renfield attends a series of church-sponsored meetings of co-dependents, and the film satirizes the hackneyed language of these coffee klatches.

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Yet all this is revealing about the underlying thinking in Hollywood.

Religious movies have always been among the most popular movies. Adjusted for inflation, The Ten Commandments remains one of the 10 highest-grossing films ever released, and The Passion of the Christ is one of the highest-grossing R-rated pictures. Bruce Almighty is among the most successful comedies of all time. It would be good business for the studio bosses to make movies founded in faith. But the present orientation of the business is one in which most people in it find mainstream religious sects and the faith of their believers to be problematic, if their views are considered at all.

Hence, Renfield.

Dracula Takes a New Direction 

At a budget of $85 million, it’s not a small movie. Indeed, Universal, the studio producing the film, seems to have placed many of its hopes for its future prosperity upon it. For more than a decade Universal has sought to create a string of branded monster movies. These are intended to compete with Disney’s Marvel films and Warner Brothers’ DC Comics pictures. The Universal plan started out with Dracula Untold in 2014. That was followed three years later by a remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. The failure of those two movies prompted the studio to go in another direction. And Renfield is certainly that.

This new version of the Dracula story chooses to focus upon Dracula’s servant, or “familiar” (Nicholas Hoult). In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, from which all of the subsequent versions of the story derive, Renfield is neither a vampire nor immortal. He is, instead, a deranged figure in an insane asylum whom Dracula has ruled through mind-control.

Initially drawn to Dracula in the hope that the Count will make him undead, yielding him a lengthier if shadowy existence, Renfield is a figure of pity. Alone in his cell, he eats bugs, thinking that their fluids may strengthen him as human blood bolsters Dracula’s powers. However, when Renfield meets Dracula’s intended victim, Mina Harker, his conscience strikes him, and he tries to draw her away from his master.

New Superpowers for an Invented Immortal

That’s not the story in this version though, which is full of action, but little logic. Here Renfield is a supernatural creature possessed of some sort of vampiric power. Sepia-toned pictures show us that he has wandered the earth for two centuries acting as Dracula’s slave, yet, inexplicably, he can spend any amount of time in broad daylight.

Still, the filmmakers keep the action moving at a rapid throttle, and all three of the leads — Nicholas Cage as Dracula, Hoult as Renfield and the diminutive Asian-America comic Awkwafina as New Orleans only honest police officer — are amusing. I think it stands a good chance of commercial success.

But it surely would have been more successful if McKay, Ridley and Universal were not so dogged in their efforts to remove Christian themes and ideas from the film. That impulse shows up most pointedly at (spoiler alert) the film’s end when Hoult and Awkwafina must take on Dracula, who is aided by the dread matriarch (Shohreh Aghdashloo) leading the New Orleans mob. Although the movie’s titular hero mentions crucifixes as something with which he and Awkwafina should arm themselves for combat, we never see these, and they are not employed either for the characters’ self-preservation or to waylay or destroy the demon — as in every other Dracula film ever made.

This is no accident. It is a choice, one that perfectly exemplifies and embodies the current entertainment industry perspective, one in which there’s the danger of working for Harvey Weinstein, but no danger of a final reckoning.

 

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York. His new novel is City of Angles.

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