With the release of RENFIELD this week, Dracula’s devoted familiar has his own movie — a horror comedy starring Nicolas Cage as the Count (in what is sure to be an over-the-top performance), and Nicholas Hoult as the titular character. If the trailer is any indication, there appears to be quite a level of co-dependency going on between the two characters. And that’s a big departure for the Renfield of Bram Stoker’s novel, as well as his filmic counterparts over what is now a century of film.
Appearing in some form or another at least a dozen times in movies (as early as 1922, if the character of Knock in NOSFERATU is thought of as a proto-Renfield) the zoophagous lunatic has been most notably played by Dwight Frye (in 1931’s DRACULA), Klaus Kinski (in 1970’s COUNT DRACULA), and Tom Waits (in 1992’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA). All three play the madman effectively, though some imbue Renfield with more moments of clarity than others. What really separates the performances, however, is how the character of Renfield is written. And much of that depends upon how close to the novel script writers tend to be.
Stoker’s book as source material for the character is rich with mannerisms, behaviors, and memorable words spoken by this most famous patient of Dr. Jack Seward’s asylum. Arguably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia in the novel as much as the influence of the Count*, R.M. Renfield is more than his malady; he is seminal to the novel’s plot: promised eternal life, Renfield assists Dracula in gaining entry to Seward’s sanitarium, and thus get access to Mina’s room. As a character, however, he is much more than mere plot device. Though his bouts with mania make him more disturbing as the novel progresses, escalating as Dracula gets closer to the protagonists (acting as a sort of barometer), Renfield is ultimately a sympathetic character. He struggles with sanity, and experiences moments of great clarity, eventually warning Mina to leave the asylum (though he doesn’t tell her why).
“Don’t you know…that I am no lunatic in a mad fit, but a sane man fighting for his soul?” he tells Dr. Seward (Seward’s Diary, October 1 (Chapter 18). Indeed, he is a man battling both inner and outer demons. But it remains to be seen just how seriously RENFIELD (2023) will take this conflict. And will the character resemble any previous incarnations.
There is a delightful dementia to Dwight Frye’s performance in 1931’s DRACULA.
Though a much modified character from the novel (thanks to being based n the Balderston / Deane stageplay), the Renfield of Tod Browning’s film is almost as iconic as Bela Lugosi’s Count— although here, he is an amalgam of Renfield and Jonathan Harker: a solicitor that goes to Transylvania to ink the deal that brings Dracula to England. And Harker? He’s Seward’s daughter Mina’s fiancé (confusing if one knows the novel well). But with these changes, Balderston / Deane and Browning are able to simplify and speed along the plot. Ironically, in the process of combining characters, Renfield is actually given more motivation for his mental illness than in the novel (though many scholars, and even Stoker’s greatgrandnephew Dacre Stoker, think Renfield preceded Harker as the first solicitor sent to work with Dracula [and for him]**).
Regardless, Frye makes the role his own. Though the New York Times’ review from 1931 simply mentions that Frye “does fairly well as Renfield,” it is Frye’s performance that sticks most in people’s minds when the name Renfield is mentioned. Bombastic, belligerant, and barmy, he is the most animated of the actors ever to play the role.
From his unforgettable laughter to his skulking about the carpet like one of the spiders he collects (pursuing his own [microcosmic] lust for blood), Frye’s Renfield is not only depicted as Dracula’s toadie, but almost as a vampire-in-training. When Van Helsing presents him with wolfsbane, Renfield reacts violently, as if he were already transforming. Until his end at the hands of Dracula, he claims devotion to Count, despite showing sympathy for Mina’s plight. In this regard, he is sympathetic — a man at war with his desire to serve evil, or try desperately to do good.
Most telling as to how Frye plays the character is his delivery of one single line: to vampire-hunter Van Helsing, he says “God will not damn a poor lunatic’s soul. He knows that the powers of evil are too great for those with weak minds.”
In the end, there is great pathos in Frye’s Renfield. He ends up unintentionally leading Van Helsing and Harker to Carfax Abbey where Van Helsing will find and kill Dracula. It is an accidental betrayal, but enough for the Count to strangle Renfield, sending the poor man tumbling down a massive staircase, putting an end to his misery.
Perhaps the most famous actor to have ever played Renfield, Klaus Kinski stars in Jesús Franco’s COUNT DRACULA (1970), a film which was billed at the time as the most-faithful adaptation of the novel ever made. Though the New York Times called it “a doggedly faithful adaptation [that] is plodding and dull,” the presence of Christopher Lee as Dracula (happily embracing the role more than in any of his Hammer performances) makes for a memorable, if flawed movie.
Silly rubber bats aside, there are some truly atmospheric moments, and Kinski — though in the film very little and mute for most of the time he is on screen — has a certain magnetic quality that draws the audience in.
If Frye’s performance is the pinnacle of mania, Kinski’s is the exact opposite: an almost catatonic Renfield that — in a wild departure from the novel (and any other film) — only shows true signs of life as he attacks Mina, strangling her for his master (as depicted in the Italian poster for the film where he seems more sinister than Dracula himself!).
In the end, Kinski is underused (as is Renfield), and the actor’s great talent, wasted. But scenes of Kinski in an all-white padded cell, with food smeared all over the walls, does make the viewer uncomfortable, as if the mental illness on screen is a little too real. This Renfield seems lost, and not only a pawn for Dracula, but truly a tortured soul trapped behind bars.
In Francis Ford Coppolla’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), musician/actor Tom Waits embodies what is probably the most faithful interpretation of Renfield in all of cinema (despite being outrageously dressed in Eiko Ishioka’s Oscar-winning costumes [including a contraption on the actor’s hands that presumably kept Renfield from chewing his own fingers, plus an impossibly long-armed straight jacket that allows Waits to gesticulate with what may as well be wings of black and white stripes]).
Calling it “witty and self-mocking and in places almost hokey,” a critic from The Washington Post gave the film an overall glowing review, and referred to Waits’ performance in a way that could well sum up Renfield’s behavior: “grungy, insect acting.”
Indeed, Waits looks grimy, speaks gravelly, and leaves the audience feeling dirty as he and the other lunatics of the asylum sundown into horrible shrieks and fits of hysteria. Waits is particularly off-putting, and therein the nature of Renfield truly comes to the fore. For Renfield as a character is supposed to make us uncomfortable. He is the all-too-human manifestation of the vampire infestation that juxtaposes one poor man’s degradation with the unholy (and attractive) ascension that is the increasing power and influence of Dracula.
That Waits also delivers lines directly from the novel — including the crystalization of the character as Renfield insists he is not a lunatic, but “a sane man fighting for his soul” — adds a depth to the character that few other actors who have played Renfield are ever given the opportunity to explore.
AND NOW FOR SOMEONE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT…
Perhaps Nicholas Hoult will get that opportunity. To figure out who Renfield really is, and who he could be. Sure, it’s going to be played for laughs in RENFIELD. That doesn’t mean Hoult can’t grow the character beyond the pages of the novel — or any previous film — and further explore just how much this lunatic servant of Dracula can also look to restore not only his sanity, but also his humanity.
RENFIELD comes to theaters in the USA on Friday, April 14.
*See the excellent “All in The Family: A Retrospective Diagnosis of R.M. Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” by Elizabeth Winter in The Journal of Dracula Studies for more on the character, mental illness (specifically, dementia praecox, a diagnosis coined in the late nineteenth century), and how familiar Bram Stoker was with issues of mental illness. Curiously, it is from Renfield that we get the modern diagnosis of Renfield’s Syndrome, or clinical vampirism.
** Coppola’s take on Renfield in fact makes it very clear that Renfield is the agent who preceded Harker in working with Dracula. If Stoker intended that connection be made, it is unclear. Were Renfield not the first solicitor, then his madness becomes all the more interesting.