Out from the Shadow of the Vampire: On Chris McKay’s “Renfield”
By Olivia RutiglianoJune 15, 2023
Renfield is a vexing character. He isn’t necessary to the plot; in fact, he complicates it, confuses it. And Dracula can’t afford further complications, being a novel already full of holes and coincidences, ambiguities and convolutions. Among many other incomprehensibilities, it makes no sense—absolutely no sense, I say—that Dracula has a ready slave waiting for him to arrive in England, when the novel does not suggest that Dracula has ever been there or that Renfield has ever gone traveling.
And yet, the story is not the same without Renfield. Adaptations that excise him lose the metaphor of Dracula’s parasitism, his quotidian dependency. (In certain adaptations, this is likely done to downplay the associated homoeroticism in favor of other themes.) Renfield’s erasure results in dampening Dracula’s overall threat level; more than killing his victims or turning them into equally powerful monsters, he can also simply drive them mad, convert them into mindless slaves. Renfield embodies the less mordant and less glamorous side of vampirism—a fate worse than both death and eternal life, a mortal lifetime without autonomy or will of any kind.
Chris McKay’s Renfield (2023), the newest film in the Dracula adaptation bloodline, pursues this servile dimension of Dracula more than any other. The film is about what it’s like to be Renfield, a question that no other film has ever really asked. Nicholas Hoult plays the character as a long-suffering, beaten-down guy Friday. In this film, unlike previous iterations, he’s explicitly referred to as a familiar, and he has responsibilities: he cleans after, cares for, brings victims to, and generally protects his needy master Dracula (Nicolas Cage). He is given superhuman strength, masterful fighting abilities, and eternal life in exchange. This isn’t a bargain he ever made willingly, but he still loathes himself for it.
Notably, Hoult’s Renfield isn’t the deranged augur of doom of Stoker’s novel. His bug-eating penchant has even been reworked. In the film, popping a bug into his mouth charges up Renfield’s superpowers and turns him into a fighting machine. In the novel, the function is symbolic: Renfield eats insects to imitate his faraway master, in a diminutive way—the way children try on their parents’ clothes. “The blood is the life,” Renfield cries, while collecting flies to consume—and feed to spiders, or birds, or cats, consuming those creatures in turn. Renfield wants to “absorb as many lives as he can,” writes Dr. Seward, the physician in charge of the sanitarium where the madman spends his days.
Hoult plays Renfield as an awkward but gentlemanly everyman, a shy, overworked assistant finally mustering up the courage to leave his boss, with help from a support group for people in abusive and codependent relationships. This is the thesis of the film—that, regardless of the supernatural stakes, at the end of the day, Dracula plainly holds Renfield in a “toxic,” abusive arrangement that seriously oversteps the professional into the personal.
“But if you were to stop focusing on his needs, what would happen?” the group leader, Mark (Brandon Scott Jones), asks Renfield. Renfield realizes that “[h]e won’t grow to full power!” Mark thinks this is an odd metaphor, but it works on both levels, necromantic and social.
The most interesting adaptations are the ones that perform readings of their source material, and this certainly offers to do that. It’s worth noting that, in many ways, the film Renfield does not live up to the potential of that gambit. (At some point, it abandons its propulsive vampire relationship comedy premise to become a buddy cop movie.) But its specific investment in the character Renfield, which never has been undertaken before, is enough to make the film feel worthwhile.
Although Dracula is the novel’s main villain, he spends most of the story offstage. Renfield is there in the meantime—unhinged, crouching, catching bugs—reminding the characters of the threat of Dracula and foregrounding the creepiness of his enterprise. Renfield is positioned to reveal Dracula’s threat and is proximate enough to sabotage the eventual crew of vampire hunters, who, because of their association with Dr. Seward, conduct much of their work close to the ward. Renfield is a satellite, a placeholder, a stand-in.
And yet, in the novel, he is also—clearly—an ordinary man under a terrible spell. When his mania wears off, he becomes guilty, worried. He falls a little bit in love with Mina Harker, the clever woman in the coterie of vampire hunters. He tries to resist the Count’s pull. He tries to save Mina from being attacked by Dracula, and, for his brave rebellion, receives savage retribution at the hands of his master.
For more than 100 years of Dracula adaptations, Renfield is either ignored or dismissed as a lunatic accessory to the Count. In offering him the leading role, Renfield conversely offers its protagonist both a backstory and a future—an identity of his own, a chance to make good on the heart he shows in the novel’s final moments. Renfield has always had the potential to be a hero, as the movie shows; he has just never been the main character.
As Stoker wrote him, R. M. Renfield is 59 years old, of “sanguine temperament” and “great physical strength.” His “morbidly excitable” nature is interrupted by “periods of gloom.” There is no mention of where he has come from, how long he has been a patient at the sanitarium, or what his occupation was. Dr. Seward refers to him as a “homicidal maniac,” though it’s not clear if this extends beyond collecting and consuming insects.
Dr. Seward has never seen a “zoöphagous (life-eating)” patient before. Recording his diary on phonograph discs, he mentions that Renfield “has afforded me a study of much interest.” And although he calls Renfield “a possibly dangerous man,” he also remarks that he seems “so quaint that I am determined to understand him as well as I can.”
Dracula is epistolary and follows several narratives at once, jumping back and forth through time, but the dates of everyone’s letters and diary entries clarify that Renfield grows increasingly crazed and bloodthirsty as the Count draws near—which no one knows is happening, for about half of the book.
At this juncture, it is worth summarizing the story of Dracula—briefly. In the first section, an English solicitor named Jonathan Harker travels to the Carpathians to finalize the sale of an English estate to a wealthy Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula. Many terrifying things happen to Jonathan there, leading him to try to escape. After a few weeks receiving no word from him, his fiancée, Mina Murray, starts to wonder if he has gone missing. A ship docks in the port city of Whitby, but the entire crew is dead. Shortly thereafter, Mina’s old friend, Lucy Westenra, who has an estate at Whitby, begins to sleepwalk and grows sickly. In London, one of Lucy’s numerous suitors, Dr. Seward, notices that his patient Renfield has begun raving about the coming of his master.
Meanwhile, Lucy, back in London, grows weaker still, causing her three suitors to contact Seward’s old mentor, medical professor Abraham Van Helsing, to help. Multiple blood transfusions cannot save the girl, and she dies. While all of this is happening, Mina gets word that Jonathan is clinging to life and being nursed back to health by nuns in Budapest.
It is only after Van Helsing rifles through the deceased Lucy’s correspondence and reads Mina’s accounts of Jonathan’s feverish ramblings and memories of staying with the Count that he begins to wonder if all of these mysteries—Jonathan’s disappearance, the ship full of dead sailors, Lucy’s sickness and death, and Dr. Seward’s frenzied patient, not to mention a mysterious female serial killer slaying children in London—are connected somehow. Van Helsing ultimately divines that the secret link between them all is Count Dracula, Jonathan’s England-bound client from several months before.
It’s a story that asks more questions than it answers. There is no explanation as to why the Count keeps Jonathan alive, no elucidation as to how, after dealing with the lawyer sent to aid his real estate transactions, Dracula winds up terrorizing that very lawyer’s friends and family. What are the odds that Jonathan’s fiancée and her friend are staying in the nondescript port city where Dracula arrives, at the same time as his arrival? (It’s in North Yorkshire, five hours away from London by rail.) And how—how—does Dracula have the devoted slave Renfield waiting for him in London, when there is no mention of any Englishman having visited Castle Dracula until Jonathan? Does Renfield’s existence suggest an unsuccessful previous attempt at infiltrating England? How do they know each other?
Since the earliest Dracula adaptations, it has been a priority to sort out this question. In Dracula: or the Un-Dead (a playscript that Stoker wrote himself, to copyright Dracula for the stage, lest the novel become so popular as to spawn unauthorized theatrical adaptations), Renfield gets a little more of an explanation. Van Helsing remarks that Renfield is clearly “serving an apprenticeship … to join the Vampire King after his death.” There are no moments in the novel with this level of clarity.
Subsequent adaptations strain under the question, though. The authorized Dracula stage play from 1924, written by Hamilton Deane, doesn’t know where to put Renfield, and so doesn’t ask much of him until the end, when he tries to save Mina and is killed for it. A 1927 revision by John L. Balderston (which played on the West End and Broadway) front-loads the character’s vampiric forecast, featuring a terrified, “repulsive” Renfield who begs to be removed from the sanitarium to “save his soul.”
F. W. Murnau’s unauthorized 1922 silent film adaptation, Nosferatu (the earliest extant Dracula film), attempts to make Renfield make sense in a different way: the Renfield character, a wild-eyed clerk named Knock (Alexander Granach), deliberately sends the lawyer and Harker-substitute Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to meet Count Orlock (Max Schreck). Knock seems to know that Orlock (Dracula’s stand-in) is a vampire, and the clerk is committed to helping the vampire find new victims.
No version tries to clarify the logistics of Renfield’s situation like the 1979 film adaptation of the novel starring Frank Langella (which was also made after a successful Broadway revival of the Deane/Balderston play). That version completely reworks Renfield (Tony Haygarth) into a gruff dockworker hypnotized by Dracula when he arrives in England by ship. Mostly sane (he doesn’t eat bugs), he doesn’t want to be part of this affair and tries to help the vampire hunters. Other rewrites establish Renfield as Dracula’s employee, a card-carrying member of the enterprise; Mark Gatiss’s Renfield from the 2020 BBC series adaptation is Dracula’s lawyer and confidant, using his position to find his client victims and plan attacks. Similarly, in the ill-fated Jonathan Rhys Meyers TV show from 2013–14, Nonso Anozie’s Renfield is basically a butler (and a good one, though it is a bit disturbing that the only Black actor in the cast plays the role of a devoted servant).
Some versions are content to let Renfield simply be a madman, eschewing concern about the plot hole he brings, in favor of a riveting performance of insanity. Jesús Franco’s extremely faithful film Count Dracula, from 1970, stars Klaus Kinski as a mostly nonverbal, highly physical Renfield. He refuses to eat the meals he is served, throwing food on the walls of his cell and then rubbing the stains—secretly munching on insects later on. His performance is astounding for its effective representation of a man who lives entirely in the world of his own mind. Here, he’s not so much Dracula’s servant as a man who is scarred by, and perhaps psychically connected to, Dracula—possibly after having encountered him. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, from 1979 (which stars Kinski as Dracula this time), features Roland Topor in a small role as a giggly, unfocused Renfield. (As in the original Nosferatu, he is Harker’s employer.)
And there’s more. Tom Waits’s Renfield from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation, entitled Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a mumbly, slightly formal oddball in prison pajamas—excited for the coming of his master, who has “promised to make [him] immortal.” He longs for Dracula to make him one of his own and grows angry and jealous when he realizes that Dracula plans to turn Mina into a vampire instead. Giovanni Franzoni’s Renfield in Dario Argento’s miserable 2012 adaptation Dracula 3-D is a filthy vagabond happy to let vampires drink his blood.
Just as Renfield the man has his own personality erased by the powers of the vampire Dracula, so is the character Renfield forever underserved by the novel’s adaptation history. So, the most relevant Renfield to Renfield is Dwight Frye’s portrayal in Tod Browning’s 1931 film. Browning’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi as the Count, is overtly expository, fixing a lot of plot holes. Renfield, not Harker, is the solicitor who treks to anemic Transylvania, becomes Dracula’s slave there, and travels back to England with him, where he is arrested and committed. This story, the most logical of all adaptations but without losing Renfield’s chaotic appeal, features an incredible performance from Frye, a New York stage actor new to Hollywood. His Renfield transforms from a jocular Englishman into a disheveled, neurotic, wailing slave. His performance has often been imitated—from Arte Johnson’s Renfield in Love at First Bite (1979) to Peter MacNicol’s incredible rendition in Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). There are, however, no equals.
Frye’s performance in the Browning film was so effective and tremendous that he was immediately offered a similar role in Universal’s upcoming Frankenstein adaptation. The novel Frankenstein (1818) does not feature a Renfield character—a servile madman factotum—so the film lifted “Fritz” (the hunchbacked lab assistant, “Igor” in later versions) from an earlier stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book. Frye was cast in the 1931 film—and was, once again, extremely effective. After his excellence in the two mad roles, he had a difficult time finding work outside of monster movies, notes Dracula expert David J. Skal. He would die a decade later, at age 44, of a heart attack.
Renfield positions itself as a sequel to Browning’s film. Hoult’s Renfield is Frye’s—a portion of the film’s beginning is black-and-white with a square aspect ratio, in which Cage and Hoult have been edited into the film’s original scenes at Castle Dracula, overlaid on top of Lugosi and Frye.
McKay’s film takes place in a gothic, present-day New Orleans, asking its audience to imagine that the master-servant dynamic forced upon Renfield on a business trip nearly a century ago has been a perpetual state of existence, one that has taken him all over the world. Hoult’s Renfield was forced to abandon his wife and child, his career and his home, when he was hypnotized by the vampire. He has seen almost 100 years of service by the time he sets foot in the support group that will change his life.
He is, the film carefully notes, even forced to abandon his name when he introduces himself to his first-ever friend, a cop named Rebecca (Awkwafina). Hoult’s expression appears overcome with relief as he recalls for her that his initials, R. M., stand for “Robert Montague.”
McKay’s Renfield, for all the pitfalls involving its police subplot, wants to care for Renfield as a character—that is, as a composite character. Renfield never wins, never survives, never heals. He is the oft-forgotten secret tragedy of Dracula stories, yet another bystander whose life is ruined. Renfield asks what it would look like for Renfield not only to get his agency back but also to confront the lack of agency that he, as a character, has dealt with all these years. Just as Browning’s Dracula shows Frye’s Renfield changing from a man into something far more mindless, McKay’s new film watches as he changes back.
Stoker always knew that his vampire story would feature a madman, but for a while, he didn’t know who it would be; the character Renfield is mentioned, although not by name, on the first page of the notes Stoker wrote before beginning work on the novel. Those notes—handwritten on memo paper and hotel stationary—are archived at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller, who annotated these many pages, note that Renfield’s name appears only towards the end of the original typewritten draft of the novel; earlier, he is referred to mostly as “the flyman” or “the fly patient.” Sometimes there is a blank space where his name should be. A few times, he is called “Renfold.”
Eighteen-Bisang and Miller conclude that his name probably came from “Rheinfeldt,” a name in Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella Carmilla, which was published 25 years before Dracula, in 1872. Like Renfield, Bertha Rheinfeldt (yes, a woman; “Carmilla” mostly features women) is an early harbinger of the coming of a vampire—a first victim, a lost soul.
Renfield also bears great similarity to Robert Holt, the unfortunate servant in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, which was published the same year as Dracula and significantly outsold it. Marsh’s novel—an orientalist tale about an Isis-worshiping cult leader from Egypt, with the ability to change into a scarab, who travels to England to enact revenge on a British politician—features an early mesmerism scene that turns Holt, a homeless man, into an entranced minion.
On October 6, 1888, the newspaper East London Advertiser published an article suggesting, in a section called “A Thirst for Blood,” that the Whitechapel killings that had taken place that year (which would later be called the “Jack the Ripper” murders) were so abominable as to have been executed by a monster. “It is so impossible to account, on any ordinary hypothesis, for these revolting acts of blood,” the author wrote, “that the mind turns as it were instinctively to some theory of occult force, and the myths of the Dark Ages rise before the imagination. Ghouls, vampires, bloodsuckers and all the ghastly array of fables […] take form, and seize hold of the excited fancy.” In that same article, various psychologists attempt to explain how ordinary people might turn into horrible killers—with one sharing a case about a boy who tortured flies before he progressed to birds, as Renfield does.
We don’t know for sure that Stoker read this article, but in the wake of the Whitechapel murders, an interest in violent behavioral deviation grew increasingly pronounced in the zeitgeist. Psychologists were conducting studies of the brains of the criminally insane to advocate for the pseudoscience of phrenology, which posited that cranium shape could determine a person’s character and mental abilities. Xenophobia and antisemitism were also rampant, and the fact that the victims were killed in the East End slum that was home to London’s Eastern European and Jewish communities only confirmed prejudices that the killer shared one or more of those qualities. Stoker’s novel can be read as a response to that horrific era in British history (especially because Dracula creates a vampire, in his first English victim Lucy, who goes on a murder spree of her own). Renfield and Count Dracula both represent different types of scapegoats of this crisis.
The vampire-as-serial-killer is a dimension of Dracula lost from many subsequent adaptations, but Renfield restores it. In fact, when the FBI gets hold of Renfield’s DNA (I told you it was a cop movie), they realize that Renfield has been linked to countless disappearances and murders, going back decades. He is perhaps, they conclude, the world’s most prolific, longest-operating serial killer.
Labels like this put Renfield—and his situation—into perspective. He is the one who does all the legwork for Dracula, but he also will take the blame if, for some reason, Dracula is ever caught by law enforcement. It clarifies the ways that Renfield has been complicit in Dracula’s legacy of misery and mayhem. But unlike Frye’s Renfield (unlike all the Renfields, really), Hoult is not insane. He is not hypnotized. He is not being puppeted. Cage’s highly demanding Dracula has Renfield in his thrall through threats and fear and manipulation. But Rebecca believes in him, and that is enough to start him on a path to redemption. “It’s never too late to be a hero,” she tells him—speaking both for this film and for a century’s worth of misused, beaten-down Renfields.
Renfield participates in a kind of interrogation of the traditional “vampire” story, a labor-focused take on the exploitation of “the familiar” not unlike FX’s What We Do in the Shadows (2019– ). This show, now preparing for the release of its fifth season, chronicles a beleaguered young man named Guillermo who has worked for a family of vampires for more than a decade without suitable compensation or any effort made by them to fulfill his request of being turned into a vampire. But unlike that series, Renfield doesn’t ask for Renfield to receive recompense or damages of any kind. Accordingly, the film is less about Dracula’s exploitative practices in the workplace and more about how his sadistic treatment of Renfield comes into focus when the framework of “the workplace” is applied.
Cage is a resplendent villain in this new film, a Dracula who combines the arcane suaveness of Bela Lugosi with the haughty coldness of an evil stepmother. He is a rancorous diva, a prima donna from hell. Renfield’s group therapy sessions help him understand that, aside from the supernatural dimension, Dracula is a narcissist who needs to put people down to feel superior. And Cage leans into this as much as he can; he speaks slowly, stressing every syllable of his insults and put-downs so Renfield can absorb them all. His needle-toothed dentures quite literally frame the words he utters as venomous, another win for a film determined to balance Dracula’s nasty interpersonal attitude with his evil vampiric nature.
Self-important, attention-seeking, and vain, Cage’s Dracula characterization underscores one of the novel’s likely inspirations. Scholars have noted Stoker’s occupation as the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, the venue owned by England’s celebrated actor Henry Irving. Although Stoker technically worked for the institution, he became the egotistical Irving’s right-hand man in all respects, traveling with him and tending to his every need. It has long been suspected that Dracula was secretly based on his own overbearing, all-consuming boss. And Renfield, with its literalized storyline about an exploited worker and his horrible employer, taps into one of the novel’s possible original frameworks.
In Renfield, Dracula’s appearance corresponds to his egomaniacal personality. One hundred years before, he begins the film in capes and furs and tuxedos, but in present-day New Orleans, he favors sequined blazers. Renfield is Dracula’s opposite—he is meek, unfashionable, bashful, unknown. He tries to embrace independence, turning to bold-colored sweaters, but he looks more out of place than his ostentatious, voguish master.
The point of this film is to give the long-suffering Renfield an opportunity to stand up to Dracula, to finally refuse to do his bidding, and to defeat him. Rebecca sees the best in him, and his support group has given him a modicum of confidence. “I am enough, and I have enough. I deserve happiness. […] And I take full charge of my life today!” he recites to himself.
Renfield summons enough strength to tell Dracula off multiple times. Dracula informs Renfield that he is worthless without him, even as the Count relies on him. When Renfield yells at him, “I will no longer tolerate abuse. […] I deserve happiness!” Dracula dismisses him, promising to rain suffering upon him and everyone he cares about. Dracula is given attitudes straight out of the abuser’s playbook, but this isn’t to say that Renfield offers anything generally meaningful about abuse and abusers. This is a film about Dracula and the Dracula Century, specifically the catharsis of watching film history’s longest-tenured lackey deciding he has had enough.
Regardless of whatever else it sets out to do, Renfield is intent on rehabilitating a character who, despite countless portrayals, has never been given much care. That character has—since 1897—been under the single-minded impression that “the blood is the life.” Only recently has he been able to discover that there is so much more to life than that.
Olivia Rutigliano is a PhD candidate in the English department at Columbia University. She is the film critic at Lit Hub and the editor of Lit Hub’s CrimeReads vertical, and her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Vulture, The Baffler, Lapham’s Quarterly, Public Books, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Politics/Letters, and The Toast, on PBS Television, and elsewhere.
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