It’s been almost 126 years (this May) since Bram Stoker’s seminal gothic horror novel ‘Dracula’ was first published and with it one of the greatest fictional characters ever created was presented to the world. Count Dracula, although a horror favourite, has firmly transcended the genre and has become one of the most famous, most recognisable and most adapted literary characters of all time. But the Count wasn’t the only infamous, impactful character that Stoker created. In the 1897 novel, R.M. Renfield is Count Dracula’s deranged, fanatically devoted servant or “familiar” whose mission it is to assist the Count in any small way that he can. Mostly by providing information and help in turning Mina Harker into a vampire and in his attempt to spread his disease throughout London and then presumably beyond.
The character of Renfield was so rousingly effective and influential on societal culture that in the early 90s psychologist Richard Noll coined the phrase "Renfield Syndrome" to help describe patients with psychiatric issues, particularly those who are drawn towards the intake of blood and/or with the compulsion of eating insects, better known as zoophagia. Something that Renfield does often in the book and some film adaptations.
With the release of Universal’s brand new modern day comedy ‘Renfield’ starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage just around the corner, we thought we would look back at some of the most memorable onscreen versions of the character from over the years.
Formerly an acclaimed solicitor, Renfield was originally invited by Count Dracula to travel to his Castle and assist him with legal matters. However the Count used this as a ruse to drink Renfield’s blood and take control of his mental state and ultimately his body. Renfield is promised immortality if he follows the commands of his “Master” but after returning to England he is institutionalised and becomes a patient of Dr. John Seward. While being treated from his room in Seward’s asylum, Renfield develops zoophagia, the obsession with eating insects and even some small mammals, which he believes provides him extra strength and vitality. He is described by Seward as having “sanguine temperament, great physical strength” and being “morbidly excitable (with) periods of gloom”. Dracula continues to appear with orders to Renfield even while he is locked in his asylum cell and eventually kills him.
Renfield appears in various film adaptations with varying backstories and onscreen interactions. In some versions Renfield is merely a patient lacking rational mental faculties and in some other versions his arc sometimes merges with that of Jonathan Harker’s and he often appears as his work colleague or boss. There are quite a few 'Dracula' films in which the character is nonexistent altogether.
There was a version of Renfield in F.W. Murnau’s unofficial 1922 adaptation ‘Nosferatu’ but because Murnau didn’t own the rights to any of the characters and couldn’t use any of the character names from the novel, his Renfield was actually called Knock and was played by Alexander Granach. The first proper characterisation of Renfield appears in Tod Browning’s now iconic 1931 adaptation starring the legendary Bela Lugosi as the Count. Universal hired Dwight Frye to portray Renfield and it remains one of the defining performances of his career. Frye is considered one of the first method actors in the industry and his maniacal laugh and sinister stare into the camera quickly became the prototypical benchmark for this type of role which would spawn the “Igor” character. Ironically Frye would play another similar “Igor” role as Fritz in James Whale’s iconic ‘Frankenstein’ later in the same year.
"He was very ahead of his time. He would hypnotise himself, and years later that became the norm; That immersion into the role and sinking into the character. He wore it all day, and he had a very passionate approach." - Gregory William Mank, co-author of Frye’s autobiography, Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh
Famously there was also a Spanish language version of 'Dracula' released the same year as Browning’s classic that was shot on the same exact sets that Lugosi and Frye shot their scenes. It was directed by George Melford and starred Carlos Villarias as Dracula with Pablo Álvarez Rubio portraying Renfield. Melford used Browning’s direction as a template for his own film although his version has considerably more dialogue.
Only one man has played both Count Dracula AND Renfield and that actor is none other than Polish born German actor Klaus Kinski. In 1970’s ‘Count Dracula’ directed by prolific Spanish filmmaker Jesús Franco, Kinski starred alongside Christopher Lee as a crazed, imprisoned Renfield who is almost completely mute. As legend has it Kinski was extremely reluctant to play the role of Dracula’s servant but was offered another script that required a similar performance. Some say that Kinski wasn’t even fully aware what film he was starring in at the time. Nine years later he would don the prosthetic makeup in Werner Herzog’s amazing spiritual remake of ‘Nosferatu’ in one of the most memorable incarnations of the Count. In Herzog’s version French writer and artist Rolan Topor played Renfield mostly as a manic, puppy dog, who turns seamlessly from cackling madman to sinister thug in the blink of an eye.
In the same year Frank Langella starred as “sexy” Dracula in John Badham’s romanticised version of Stoker’s story. The script for this adaptation took some liberties with the novel’s premise and Renfield (played by Tony Haygarth) only appears in a small role as a dishevelled workman who helps to unload boxes at Carfax Abbey and then becomes hypnotised by Dracula. Despite not being on screen for very long Haygarth manages to bring something a little bit different than the usual maniacal performance we’re accustomed to. As does Langella. Wanting to stray away from Dracula’s classic look created initially by Lugosi for the Universal films and then cemented by Christopher Lee for the Hammer productions, Langella wanted to show a different side to the character that had perhaps not been explored before. And who can forget that chest hair.
"I decided he was a highly vulnerable and erotic man, not cool and detached and with no sense of humour or humanity. I didn't want him to appear stilted, stentorian or authoritarian as he's often presented. I wanted to show a man who, while evil, was lonely and could fall in love. I did not want to look like Bela Lugosi, or Christopher Lee". - Frank Langella on becoming Dracula
Badham’s film brought together an impressive array of talented actors including Laurence Olivier as Abraham Van Helsing, Donald Pleasance as Dr. Seward and a young pre-'Doctor Who' Sylvester McCoy. John Williams provided the fantastic original score which often gets lost amongst his more popular blockbuster works.
1979 was a busy year for 'Dracula' adaptations. ‘Dracula Bites the Big Apple’ was a comedy short that saw the Count make a trip to New York and was directed by Richard Wenk. Renfield was played by Barry Gomolka and as the story goes this short was seen by writer/producer Donald P. Borchers, who hired Wenk to direct ‘Vamp’ based on his work here. Another comedy version, this time a feature film, was also released in 1979 called ‘Love At First Bite’ starring George Hamilton. Interestingly this film is also set in New York and sees Dracula pursuing Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James) with the help of his assistant Renfield, played here by Arte Johnson. The legendary comic actor starred in bit roles on television through the 50s and mid 60s before getting his big break on ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In’. The film was successful at the box-office but received mixed reviews from critics with Gene Siskel saying that George Hamilton gave “a smug performance in a film full of tired jokes and some of the most cruel racial stereotyping you'll ever see.” Despite this Arte Johnson’s performance was highly praised and he won a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Perhaps one of the most famous incarnations of R.M. Renfield (since Dwight Frye’s incomparable performance) is that of singer/songwriter Tom Waits in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 masterpiece ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. Waits gives an exhaustive and poignant portrayal of a disturbed man becoming a prisoner of his own mind. He is fully committed to the role and though some may think his speech techniques to be over the top I think it only heightens the agonising possession which is going on at the hands of his “master”. Little details like the crazy hair and intellectual looking glasses also give some extra personality and nuanced backstory to the character, with his lunacy further developed by the inclusion of the metal hand restraints, which I believe haven’t been used on Renfield before in any other adaptation.
1994 saw the release of ‘Nadja’ a post-modern black and white vampire tale set in contemporary New York that sees a family of dysfunctional vampires come together to grieve after the death of their “father”. The film naturally doesn’t follow the original story but does feature Peter Fonda as both Dracula and Van Helsing and Irish actor Karl Geary as Renfield. Elina Löwensohn plays the titular lead character and Renfield is her familiar. This Renfield is young and kinda hot and definitely not insane. He is a man-servant and very good at his job but more than anything he is a support cushion for Nadja, something that we haven’t really seen before from that character. He’s a close friend who indulges in the same innocent hobbies that Nadja indulges in but he has strong feelings for her. It’s a startling performance from Karl Geary despite it being his first acting gig. ‘Nadja’ is “presented” by David Lynch, who also has a small role as a morgue receptionist. Lynch helped finance the film after Eric Stoltz dropped out and the initial funding was frozen. Martin Donovan replaced Stoltz.
Comedy genius Mel Brooks took a stab at the vampire legend in 1995’s ‘Dracula: Dead & Loving It’ starring Leslie Nielson as the Count. In typical Mel Brooks fashion the film spoofs many favourites from the genre. Nielsen is in fine form as usual but Peter MacNicol steals the show with his version of Renfield. Visually it’s a lot closer to Dwight Frye’s performance but obviously with more comedic timing. His outlandish stint as Dr. Janosz Poha in ‘Ghostbusters II’ most certainly would’ve helped him get the role here. His version of Renfield is really over the top (obviously considering this is a Mel Brooks production) and his English accent is very reminiscent of some classic Ealing Studios comedy films. His slapstick movements and facial reactions wouldn’t look amiss alongside Sid James and Charles Hawtrey on the set of a ‘Carry On’ movie.
There’s been loads of other memorable Renfield performances over the years, probably too many to mention here. Maybe we will do a Part Two sometime to discuss some of the newer versions.
What’s your favourite Renfield on screen performance?
- Gavin Logan
'Renfield' is released in UK cinemas on April 14th