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Renfields, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: BBC, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, Variety Distribution

“Sanguine temperament; great physical strength; morbidly excitable; periods of gloom, ending in some fixed idea which I cannot make out.” That’s how Dr. John Seward first describes his patient R.M. Renfield in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Starting from that pared-down introduction, Renfield has become one of the most enduring characters in horror fiction. Renfield, a resident of the asylum where Seward treats the mentally ill, falls under the spell of the vampire Count Dracula, who makes vague promises of eternal life but only supplies Renfield with insects and rats to feed on.

First played by Dwight Frye in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula from Universal Pictures, Renfield has since become a staple of movies and TV series featuring Dracula and other vampires. Although he typically ends up as a raving asylum inmate, he often starts in other positions, and in some cases he retains more of his mental faculties, even while in thrall to Dracula or other vampires. He’s the archetype of the vampire’s eager servant, the simpering sycophant who will do anything for his master. That has extended to plenty of characters not named Renfield, though only actual Renfields, appearing in vampire movies and shows, are included in this list.

Renfield gets his biggest spotlight yet as the title character in a new horror comedy starring Nicholas Hoult as Renfield and Nicolas Cage as Dracula. Playing Renfield effectively often involves a delicate balance between pathos and insanity, and even otherwise excellent vampire movies don’t always do the character justice. With Hoult as the latest in a long line of Renfields, here’s a look at how he ranks alongside his forebears.

29. Kyle Rappaport, Sharkula (2022)

Sharkula is a typically slapdash, nonsensical production from extraordinarily prolific micro-budget filmmaker Mark Polonia (Sharkenstein, Shark Encounters of the Third Kind). The vampire shark (complete with bat wings) looks pathetic in both its puppet and CGI forms, and Polonia regular Jeff Kirkendall makes for an especially unconvincing Dracula. The equally unconvincing Rappaport delivers all of his lines in a mush-mouthed monotone, just staring ahead blankly whenever the camera is on him. Rappaport’s Renfield is Dracula’s all-purpose servant in a nearly deserted Massachusetts port town where the main characters arrive for extremely suspicious seasonal employment. “He’s as cunning as he is stupid and perverse,” says local historian Mina (Jamie Morgan) about Renfield, and that’s giving him way too much credit.

28. Ewan Bailey, Monster Family (2017) and Monster Family 2 (2021)

Monster Family is the kind of animated kids’ movie that should only be shown to children as punishment; it’s an incoherent mash-up of The Munsters and Hotel Transylvania featuring a bickering family who find themselves transformed into monsters. It’s all part of a nefarious, inexplicable plan by Count Dracula (Jason Isaacs), who dresses like X-Men adversary Magneto. Dracula’s assistant, Renfield, is a tuxedo-wearing hunchback who utters only grunts and groans until the third act, when he suddenly starts speaking like Peter Lorre. Like the rest of the characters, he’s a mismatched copy of random horror-movie elements that don’t fit together and aren’t funny. In the sequel, Renfield marries the witch Baba Yaga and gets kidnapped by a teenage billionaire monster hunter. (Don’t ask.)

27. Ian Pfister, Dracula Reborn (2012)

Writer-director Patrick McManus takes the idea of Renfield as Dracula’s assistant perhaps a little too literally, making Pfister’s Renfield a chauffeur, butler, and secretary for Count Dracula (Stuart Rigby). This Dracula is living in modern-day Southern California and operating as a businessman under the name Vladimir Sarkany. The lanky, bald Renfield serves as a bland functionary, delivering expository lines like, “Here are the documents you need for the closing.” He has the same bored expression whether serving papers or running over one of Dracula’s enemies with a van. The movie is similarly dull, full of so many filler shots of characters driving around that Jonathan Harker’s Prius gets more screen time than Dracula. Renfield doesn’t do much more than take up space.

26. Michael H. Moss, The Night Flier (1997)

The vampire in this lower-tier Stephen King adaptation is named Dwight Renfield, in reference both to Stoker’s character and to original Renfield actor Dwight Frye. He remains mostly offscreen as tabloid reporter Richard Dees (Miguel Ferrer) tracks his movements via various backwater airports, where Renfield lands his flying hearse under cover of darkness. Brief glimpses show him in a Bela Lugosi–style cloak, but he’s not heard until nearly the end of the movie, when he issues threats to Dees over the plane’s radio in a generic-sounding cartoon-bad-guy voice. Like a lot of movies based on King short stories, The Night Flier struggles to expand its narrative to feature length, but none of the extra material gives Renfield a compelling presence.

25. Giovanni Franzoni, Dracula 3D (2012)

Dracula 3D is a low point for Italian horror icon Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red), as his take on Stoker’s story is a mess of shoddy CGI, clumsy plotting, and weak performances — though Franzoni’s Renfield is far from the worst element. Rather than a reclusive, mysterious threat, Thomas Kretschmann’s Dracula is essentially the ruler of the village of Passo Borgo, and when everyone in town serves him, that makes Renfield a bit superfluous. Chained and muzzled in a cell, Renfield begs an indifferent Dracula to command him. Instead, Renfield fixates on vampire bride Tania (Miriam Giovanelli), comforting her when Dracula turns his attention to Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) and calling her his mistress. It’s a futile effort from a character — and an actor — with minimal impact on the film.

24. Trevor Morgan, Vampire (2011)

The only English-language film from Japanese auteur Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou), Vampire is a glum arthouse drama that recalls George Romero’s Martin. Mopey schoolteacher Simon Williams (Kevin Zegers) feels a compulsion to drink blood, though he possesses no supernatural abilities and may just be mentally ill. He attempts to feed compassionately by recruiting suicidal victims from online forums, but he’s still essentially a serial killer. That attracts the attention of Morgan’s Renfield, a murder groupie whose first line is “Jeffrey Dahmer is my fucking hero.” The leering, sadistic Renfield discovers Simon’s identity and forces him on a harrowing ride-along as Renfield abducts, rapes, and kills a random woman. It’s an especially distasteful interlude in an already disjointed, off-putting movie.

23. Simon Ludders, Young Dracula (2006–2014)

Ludders’s Renfield is a main cast member in all five seasons of this British tween horror comedy, which follows Count Dracula (Keith-Lee Castle) and his children Vlad (Gerran Howell) and Ingrid (Clare Thomas) as they move from Transylvania to small-town Wales and then later to an English academy. Although he possesses expertise in alchemy and other mystical arts, the characters mostly treat the sniveling, sniggering Renfield as an annoyance, and Ludders plays him accordingly. As the show gets darker and more serialized in later seasons, Renfield loses his scraggly hair and facial warts and starts wearing cleaner clothes, but he remains a whiny irritant, even when he succeeds in convincing Dracula to make him a vampire in the final episodes.

22. Phil Nichols, Renfield the Undead (2011)

The first movie to feature Renfield as the title character is an ugly, overlong, low-budget horror production. Star Nichols also wrote the screenplay and created the creature effects, and he does subpar work in all three positions. The confusing movie features multiple framing devices, presenting the main story as part of a Renfield comic book and then flashing back to a condensed version of the entire plot of Dracula. Present-day Renfield stalks the streets of fictional Bayou City, where he’s alternately a crazed killer and a righteous crusader preventing Dracula’s resurrection, depending on the scene. Nichols’s grating maniacal laugh never varies, even in Renfield’s death throes. The movie ends with a “To Be Continued” promise of a sequel that, thankfully, was never made.

21. Brett Forrest, Dracula’s Kiss (2002)

This two-part Italian miniseries, which was ​​also released in a condensed feature-film version titled Dracula’s Curse, doesn’t devote much screen time to Renfield over the course of its nearly three hours. Set in modern Budapest, the story mixes aspects of Stoker’s novel with muddled commentary on the illicit sale of ancient art and artifacts. Forrest’s Renfield spends almost the entire movie confined to his cell in Dr. Seward’s asylum, where he’s been a patient for 25 years. Bald and practically emaciated, Renfield first appears onscreen stark naked, and his manic ramblings about “the final battle” don’t add anything useful to the story. In addition to his familiar bug-eating, he also consumes dirt from Dracula’s coffin, but it doesn’t have any particular effect on his demeanor or his position in the story.

20. Arte Johnson, Love at First Bite (1979)

Laugh-In veteran Johnson plays Renfield as a hacky sketch-comedy character in this painfully dated parody starring George Hamilton. Hamilton’s Dracula flees Transylvania after the Romanian government seizes his castle, bringing along his longtime servant Renfield. Arriving in peak disco-era New York City, Dracula seeks out his reincarnated bride, while the bumbling Renfield ineptly tends to his master’s affairs. With his nasally laugh and loud outfits, Johnson’s Renfield is an earful and an eyesore, and Johnson gives the broadest performance in a movie full of comedic scenery-chewing. His belabored shtick fits with the movie’s lumbering sense of humor, which relies on a lot of vaguely sexist and racist jokes that have aged about as well as the now-stale pop-culture references.

19. Stuart Packer, Dracula: The Original Living Vampire (2022)

This production from mockbuster factory the Asylum was meant to capitalize on the release of Marvel superhero flop Morbius (in comic books, that character is known as “the living vampire”), and the entertainment value of the two movies is about even. Set in a poorly defined time period, The Original Living Vampire reimagines Van Helsing (Christine Prouty) as a female police detective in a lesbian relationship with Mina Murray (India Davies) and Renfield as her captain. He’s also secretly working for Dracula (Jake Herbert), trying to cover up the vampiric murders that Van Helsing is investigating. Packer mostly plays Renfield as a straightforward corrupt cop, though he puts more energy into his performance once Renfield returns from the dead as a vampire himself, embracing full-on villainy.

18. Stephen Hogan, Dracula: The Dark Prince (2013)

Hogan’s Renfield, surely the highest-achieving version of the character, is the chancellor of Transylvania during the Crusades in The Dark Prince, a bargain-basement sword-and-sorcery movie that aims to turn Dracula into Game of Thrones. The characters are obsessed with a weapon called the Lightbringer, which both Dracula (Luke Roberts) and his nemesis, Leonardo Van Helsing (Jon Voight), seek in order to harness its power. The enjoyably devious Renfield is more like Game of Thrones’ Varys, often literally lurking in the shadows as others fight to the death, biding his time until the right moment arrives. “I will bring this country back to the glory it once knew,” he vows, sounding more like a politician than a supernatural creature, though there’s no reason those can’t be the same thing.

17. Tony Haygarth, Dracula (1979)

Based on the Broadway revival of the 1924 play, this is a lavish studio production in almost every respect, but Haygarth’s Renfield is uncouth and irritating to both the audience and the other characters. He speaks in an exaggerated working-class English accent, complaining about hauling Dracula’s boxes of soil from a wrecked ship on the Yorkshire coast, then exclaiming, “Bloody ’ell, that hurts,” when Dracula (Frank Langella) attacks him. Langella’s suave, seductive vampire is one of the best onscreen portrayals of Dracula, and the impressive supporting cast includes Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasence. While most elements of the story have been glamorously refreshed, Renfield comes off like an afterthought, despite Haygarth’s best efforts. “The man is worthless,” Dracula says. He’s not wrong.

16. Karl Geary, Nadja (1994)

This black-and-white early effort from indie filmmaker Michael Almereyda (Experimenter, Marjorie Prime) looks like something that could have aired on MTV’s 120 Minutes, complete with My Bloody Valentine and Portishead on the soundtrack. Almereyda’s deadpan depiction of vampires is appealing at first, but the material is thin, and Almereyda’s reliance on the Fisher-Price PXL2000 — an actual toy camera popular with video artists — often makes the movie physically hard to watch. Geary’s Renfield is petulant and consumed with ennui, which goes along with the movie’s NYC-hipster take on Dracula’s adult children Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) and Edgar (Jared Harris). “Renfield? He just works for us,” says Edgar dismissively, while Nadja ignores Renfield’s expressions of affection. Renfield merely pouts and sighs.

15. Nonso Anozie, Dracula (2013–2014)

The misguided idea to combine Dracula with Nikola Tesla may be why this British-American co-production lasted only one season on NBC. In 1896 London, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Dracula poses as an American industrialist, touting a new form of electrical power that can be transmitted wirelessly. Anozie brings a quiet solemnity to Renfield, an American with a law degree who’s been prevented from working as a lawyer because of his race. He pledges his loyalty after Dracula saves his life, but he’s his own person, not a mind-controlled servant. That dignified autonomy doesn’t afford him much screen time in this soapy supernatural drama, though, and he mostly runs errands for Dracula when he’s not being kidnapped and tortured for information by his master’s enemies.

14. Samuel Barnett, Penny Dreadful (2016)

Both Dracula (Christian Camargo) and Renfield joined the cast of this Showtime monster-mash series in its third and final season, setting their sights on protagonist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Barnett’s Renfield begins as the cheerful, friendly secretary to Dr. Florence Seward (Patti LuPone), who engages Vanessa in an early form of psychotherapy. That doesn’t last long, though, once Dracula enlists Renfield to spy on Vanessa for him. Soon Renfield is kneeling at his master’s feet and begging for “sweeties.” He’s appropriately repugnant as he crawls across the floor so he can sniff the sleeping Vanessa. Barnett plays Renfield’s descent into madness with the show’s customary mix of camp and gloom, going from Seward’s capable assistant to her straitjacketed captive within a handful of episodes.

13. Mark Gatiss, Dracula (2020)

Co-creator Gatiss cast himself as Renfield in this three-part BBC/Netflix series, though he only shows up in the final installment. The first two chapters take place in the time period of Stoker’s novel, while the third episode jumps ahead to find Dracula (Claes Bang) reawakened in 2020. Captured by a secret organization, Dracula hires lawyer Frank Renfield, whose firm he’s apparently had on retainer since 1896. “Count Dracula has rights,” Renfield asserts, and that’s enough to secure his release. Cut to three months later, and Renfield has gone from a fidgety, bespectacled lawyer in a rumpled suit to a disheveled servant tending to Dracula’s every need. Gatiss gives a wry, self-deprecating performance, providing welcome humor in a show that’s a little too enamored of its own pseudo-edginess.

12. Jack Shepherd, Count Dracula (1977)

One of the most faithful adaptations of Stoker’s novel, this BBC TV movie is consequently a rather dry dramatization, with slow pacing and a mostly subdued Dracula played by French actor Louis Jourdan. Confined to Dr. Seward’s asylum, Shepherd’s Renfield is similarly understated, although he can become unhinged at times. He exhibits almost sexual ecstasy when communicating telepathically with Dracula, and he licks his lips lasciviously when first meeting Mina Westenra (Judi Bowker). He’s also pensive and even erudite, reciting a poem about a fly rather than just frantically consuming the insect. His final warning to Mina, with dialogue taken directly from the novel, is plaintive and affecting, though it still doesn’t save him from Dracula’s eventual wrath.

11. Zak Orth, Vamps (2012)

Amy Heckerling’s upbeat comedy about a pair of nightlife-loving Manhattan vampires takes a good-natured approach to Renfield, who’s more a friend than a servant. He’s always inviting Goody (Alicia Silverstone) and Stacy (Krysten Ritter) out to clubs, just as eager to get them to meet him at Soho House as he is to convince them to make him a vampire. He dresses in Affliction shirts and has an unfortunate — but period-accurate — swooping haircut. Later he reveals that he’s a certified public accountant, which comes in handy when Goody, Stacy, and their fellow teetotaling vampires in Sanguine Anonymous need to clear up some problems with the IRS. Orth mixes naïve enthusiasm with the right amount of snark, fitting in perfectly with the charming comedic ensemble.

10. Sean Pertwee, The Invitation (2022)

For the majority of the running time, Pertwee’s officious butler is referred to as Mr. Field, but his true identity eventually comes out, along with the secret of what’s really happening at the posh English estate known as New Carfax Abbey. That’s where American Evie Jackson (Nathalie Emmanuel) finds herself after the long-lost cousin she just discovered via DNA testing invites her to a fancy wedding. Renfield works for Walter De Ville (Thomas Doherty), the suspiciously charismatic lord of the manor who is obviously Dracula, and he does not approve of his master’s interest in Evie. She calls him an “entitled douchebag,” and Pertwee perfectly captures that mix of professionalism and resentment, whether Renfield is chastising maids for breaking glasses or sending them into the locked library to their obvious deaths.

9. Richard Bulik, Dracula Sucks (1978)

Yes, this is porn, though it comes from the golden age of adult films playing in mainstream theaters and has since been released in a lovingly restored home-video edition from boutique label Vinegar Syndrome. Befitting his woebegone status, Bulik’s Renfield is one of the only characters in this movie who never has sex. “Mina is a virgin, just like me,” he tells Dracula (Jamie Gillis), who prefers biting his victims on body parts other than the traditional neck. Director and co-writer Philip Marshak adds some self-aware humor to the schlock and smut, and Bulik gives a genuinely entertaining performance as the needy and almost sympathetic Renfield. As everyone around him gets naked and nasty, he pleads with Dracula, “What about our game of rummy?”

8. Brent Neale, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

Canadian director Guy Maddin combines his distinctive off-kilter silent-movie style with a performance by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for a unique impressionistic interpretation of Stoker’s story. It’s more than just a filmed stage performance, since Maddin presents the ballet in black-and-white with select color tinting, as if it’s an unearthed discovery from the silent era. Without dialogue, the performers rely on movement and facial expressions, and Maddin deploys select intertitles, often playfully. One such title introduces the bearded, long-haired Neale as “Renfield: Eater of Bugs,” and Neale makes a strong impression even though he never gets to dance. He reaches what looks like an offscreen orgasm while gawking at Lucy Westenra (Tara Birtwhistle) from behind bars, and later appears to be eating a bird. Maddin’s deliberately ramshackle approach means that Dr. Seward (Matthew Johnson) and his team probe Renfield’s brain with a device that may actually just be a letter opener, but Neale’s unwavering commitment makes it work.

7. Roland Topor, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Werner Herzog’s homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu is, as expected, bracingly bleak and full of existential despair. Herzog’s lifelong frenemy Klaus Kinski plays Dracula as a pastiche of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok, a disfigured monster who repulses everyone around him. By contrast, Topor’s Renfield is almost jovial, with a hysterical, deranged giggle even before he becomes Dracula’s loyal servant. Aided by Renfield, Dracula arrives in the German town of Wismar with a ship full of plague-carrying rats. After escaping from the local asylum, Renfield becomes a sort of Pied Piper for the plague rats, leading them on to the next town after they’ve nearly wiped out the population of Wismar. Like Herzog, he’s an eager and enthusiastic guide toward destruction and death.

6. Nicholas Hoult, Renfield (2023)

It’s thematically appropriate that Nicolas Cage’s Dracula consistently overshadows Hoult’s Renfield, since the entire movie is about Renfield’s struggle to establish his own identity separate from his master. Director Chris McKay’s film is a bit of a tonal mess, but Hoult effectively navigates the mix of goofy comedy, graphic violence, and heartfelt emotion. Hoult’s Renfield is filled with sorrow and regret, which he pours out in meetings of a codependency support group. As Cage’s Dracula slinks and snarls, Hoult keeps his performance low key, even when dispatching hordes of bad guys in a flurry of severed limbs and gushing blood. It’s a surprisingly sweet take on the character, grounding the movie’s often ridiculous posturing in something resembling genuine humanity.

5. Tom Waits, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It takes a lot for Waits’s weirdness to be upstaged, but that’s what you get in a movie featuring both Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins at their most grandiose. Francis Ford Coppola’s lush, lurid film is full of delightful excess, from Oldman’s melodramatic, impeccably coiffed Dracula to the eye-popping (and justifiably Oscar-nominated) costume and set design. With elaborate metal contraptions on his hands and a straitjacket that has long, accordion-like sleeves, Waits’s Renfield looks more like a Batman villain in Arkham Asylum than a 19th-century mental patient. “I’ve been rather naughty,” he tells Mina Harker (Winona Ryder), and Waits emphasizes the naughtiness, making Renfield grotesque and gleeful whether he’s being hosed down by orderlies or offering visitors a plate of bugs as “hors d’oeuvres.”

4. Peter MacNicol, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Mel Brooks’s final feature film as a director has nothing on his previous Universal monsters parody, classic 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein, but MacNicol’s performance is a highlight of the mostly unremarkable movie. Leslie Nielsen, parody king of the 1990s, is miscast as Dracula, muddling through with a half-hearted Bela Lugosi accent. MacNicol more effectively channels Dwight Frye, combined with a bit of Buster Keaton energy in his exuberant physical comedy. He’s hilarious to watch as Renfield strenuously denies eating bugs while a grasshopper’s leg dangles from his mouth, or when he keeps nodding off as Dracula attempts to hypnotize him. He’s amusingly hapless until the end, when Dracula curses “Renfield, you asshole!” with his final breath and Renfield just pratfalls his way toward a new master.

3. Klaus Kinski, Count Dracula (1970)

Nine years before appearing as Dracula himself in Nosferatu the Vampyre, Kinski played an almost entirely mute Renfield in this uncharacteristically sedate Stoker adaptation from Spanish cult filmmaker Jess Franco. Christopher Lee, famous for his portrayal of Dracula in numerous Renfield-free Hammer Films productions, takes on a more faithful version of the character than in his previous Dracula outings. Kinski plays Renfield as a haunted and doomed man, conveying more anguish just with his eyes than most actors could muster with reams of dialogue. Kinski’s Renfield is more terrified than servile, eking out only a single word — the name of a town where Dracula is headed — before his body simply gives up. It’s a chilling performance in an otherwise underwhelming production.

2. Pablo Álvarez Rubio, Drácula (1931)

Filmed on the same sets and during the same time period as Tod Browning’s film, this Spanish-language version of Dracula is sometimes more somber and unsettling than its renowned counterpart. Rubio’s Renfield is skittish and startled from the moment he appears in a coach headed to the castle of Conde Drácula (Carlos Villarías), and Rubio brings a certain melancholy to the role, even in his wonderfully crazed laugh. His Renfield is haggard and almost tragic, desperately pleading with Professor Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) to save him and getting weepy when Drácula orders him to harm Eva Seward (Lupita Tovar). Rubio’s performance, like the rest of the movie, went unseen for decades, and both are worthy of their celebrated rediscovery.

1. Dwight Frye, Dracula (1931)

There’s a reason that nearly every other actor who’s played Renfield in the past 90-plus years has emulated Frye in some way. Browning’s film adjusts Stoker’s story so that Frye’s Renfield is the main character for the first half or so, as he travels to Transylvania to execute a real-estate deal for Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). Produced just as films were transitioning from silent to sound, Browning’s Dracula often plays like a silent film, allowing Frye to give an exaggerated performance that can be understood even without dialogue. His eyes are as expressive and creepy as Lugosi’s, and the sight of him emerging from the ship that has traveled from Transylvania to England is as disquieting as anything Lugosi can offer. It’s easy to believe that Renfield can cause a maid to faint solely by laughing. Parts of the film now come across as stilted, but Frye’s presence is as enduring as Lugosi’s.

Renfields, Ranked