Renfield has been a staple in the Draculastory since the immortal bloodsucker first appeared back in Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel. Since those days he’s taken on many forms, and many names but the Count’s crazed companion has always remained familiar to vampire lore. A rose Renfield by any other name would smell just as sweet stinky.
Chris McKay’s Renfield (starring Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult) hits theatres this weekend, expanding the sidekick’s role in the classic Dracula story to take center stage and achieve hero status. Although this may be the character’s first time in the spotlight, Renfield has had a legacy all his own, featuring some delightfully twisted performances and clever twists on the character throughout the decades. Today, we’re ranking the best adaptations of this deranged, bug-eating, assistant.
Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar Let The Right One In
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The beauty of Let The Right One In is that you get tw0 Renfield’s for the price of one! A bullied young boy named Oskar meets a kindred spirit in Eli (Lina Leandersson), a mysterious girl who we eventually discover is a ding-dang vampire. At the start of the film, Eli’s familiar/blood-harvester is an older man named Håkan (Per Ragnar) but as Oskar and Eli relationship continues to grow and they become more dependent on each other, Oskar becomes Eli‘s new “Renfield”. It’s a dark tale and more romantic side of the vampire/familiar dynamic we’re used to seeing, but a classic Renfield nonetheless.
Jackie Van Beek as Jackie – What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
Jackie Van Beek’s familiar may be named Jackie but I know a Renfield when I see one. Oddly, she’s one of the rare female familiars in vampire stories, but a brilliant and hilarious addition the cannon. Like the Renfield’s that came before her, she procures dinner for her masters (often people who were mean to her in High School), cleans up their messes, and handles the various errands all under the assumption that they will gift her with eternal life…someday. Jackie is a fun Renfield because the film examines what that character would look like in a real-life setting, but also because she’s smart enough to ditch the dunderheads she’s been serving for years and get what she wants by hooking up with another vampire before her time runs out.
Tom Waits as Renfield – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
When in doubt, cast Tom Waits to play your bizarro, seemingly unhuman madman. The gravelly crooner has made a career out of playing heightened characters and his turn at Renfield in Francis Ford Coppolla’s operatic vampire film is a perfect example. Call it great casting, call it perfect costuming, Tom Waits embodies the madness of Renfield like no one had before in a subdued performance that is as creepy as it is cool. He eats bugs, mumbles to himself in the corner of his padded cell, and he’s got weird little steam-punky appliance attached to his fingers. Despite not appearing in the film for more than a handful of scenes because of the film’s attention to Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan Harker, Tom Waits’ Renfield casts a haunting shadow on the this already gothic AF Dracula story.
Nicolas Cage as Peter Loew – Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
I hear what you’re saying but trust me on this one. Peter Loew, played by Nicolas Cage, only thinks that he is a vampire. And you can’t really blame him. He meets a mysterious woman at a club one night and after sleeping with her, he’s convinced that he’s become a creature of the night. We do see her bit him on the neck but who’s to say what’s real and what’s not in this kooky movie. Peter is a bit of an erratic lunatic to begin with, but he quickly becomes obsessed with this vampire woman. He can’t get her out of his head, he builds his own little coffin out of a couch, and he drops everything to follow the commands of the vampiress whenever her whispers appear in his head. Sounds like classic Renfield behavior if you ask me….
Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Renfield – Drácula (1931)
Dwight Frye may always be the name we remember when we think of Renfield, but Pablo Álvarez Rubio’s turn as the count’s servant in the Spanish language Drácula (1931), is equally impressive. Rubio’s Renfield is an incredibly tortured soul, leaning heavily on the Catholic weight of damnation for his actions. His laugh (a Renfield must) is bone-chilling and is easily the moment where he outshines his English counterpart. Overwrought, half-mad, and obsessed with blood of rats, Rubio’s Renfield is a classic and committed performance that goes the extra step to make the madness of the characters something to be truly afraid of.
Harvey Guillén as Guillermo de la Cruz – What We Do In The Shadows (series)
Harvey Guillén’s Guillermo de la Cruz has had a wild ride on the What We Do In The Shadowsseries. Over several seasons he has become a love interest and vampire hunter extraordinaire, but it’s clear in the first season that he is simply riffing on the classic vampire familiar trope, established in large part through Renfield. His journey has been a hilarious and surprisingly heart-felt twist on the classic character and one that you could argue has really helped pave the way for Nocholas Hoult’s turn at the character in Renfield. Guillén’s familiar might not have the same level of insanity as his predecessors but his
Ben Foster as The Stranger – 30 Days of Night (2007)
Most Renfields are respected men of middle-class status that have fallen down a deep dark hole of insanity and subservience. Ben Foster’s “Renfield“, on the other hand, is something else altogether. Known only as The Stranger, he grins manically through a disgusting mouth of rotted teeth and looks down on everyone around like as though they were insects about to be squished. He’s the one Renfield on this list that feels as though he was born mad, and yet, he respects and fear his masters like gods. His performance is *chef kiss* perfect and is hands down on of the rare instances where a Renfield is as much a stone-cold villain as he is a tortured victim.
Peter MacNicol as Renfield – Dracula: Dead And Loving It (1995)
It’s hard to believe that one of the best Renfield performances would come from a satire of the classic Dracula story, but here we are! Peter MacNicol’s Renfield is side-splittingly hilarious and somehow, as honest a representation of the character as there has ever been. Playing up the repressed sexually of the day, this Renfield goes from being a stuck-up, prudish Brit who’s been let loose and given his freaky freedom after getting busy with Dracula and his brides.
This Renfield definitely also holds the record for most bugs eaten on screen (sorry Tom Waits), chomping down on flies, spiders, grasshoppers, and anything other little crunchy morsel he can get his hands on. More than that, it’s this Renfield’s unwavering dedication to his master that does Dracula in, in the end. Mostly because he’s a complete numbskull. But a complete numbskull that brings to life the lunacy of a character that’s lost all sense of self in his obedience to an inhuman monster.
Dwight Frye as Renfield – Dracula (1931)
There is no doubt in my mind that Renfield, the character, would not have had the staying power it’s enjoyed these last 90 years if it wasn’t for Dwight Frye’s incredible performance in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Yeah, Bela Lugosi is the star of the show, but Frye’s psychotic laugh, those piercing eyes, and his skulking skeletal frame make him *just* unhuman enough to change the temperature of the room. All Renfield performances that came after have been inspired by his performance and the legacy of the horror most recognizable sidekick would be non-existent if not for Frye’s deranged dedication to bringing a touch of humanity to an otherwise unsympathetic character. All hail Dwight Frye!
You may have noticed that there are only 9 Renfieds on this list, and that’ because I really do think Nicholas Hoult’s turn at the character belongs somewhere on this list. His Renfield is fun, funny, and kicks a whole lot of ass. He rips a dude’s face clean off! And more important than that, he actually stands up to Dracula. Something that usually meant death for any Renfield that came before him. Where his performance belongs on this list is something I will have leave up to you, but I’m confident he’ll be somewhere in your Top 10 Renfields as well.