Return of the Drac.
DIRECTOR: Sam Deats
WRITER: Warren Ellis
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Adi Shankar, Fred Seibert, Ted Biaselli, Kevin Kolde, Larry Tanz
PRODUCERS: Toshiyuki Hiruma, Brad Graeber, Jason Williams
GENRE: Animated Horror Fantasy
STARRING: Richard Armitage, James Callis, Graham McTavish, Alejandra Reynoso, Tony Amendola, Matt Frewer, Emily Swallow
Well, here we are: it’s the year 2017, and before you sits a review of the first season of Castlevania, the latest edition to Netflix’s lineup of bingeable exclusive shows. When I initially heard there was gonna be a Castlevania adaption for Netflix, my first reaction was being stunned that its wasn’t a Uwe Boll comeback story. No, Castlevania instead comes to us by way of executive producer Adi Shankar, who has also made a bit of reputation for himself with adaptations of popular video games and comics, albeit with a better eye for quality than Mr. Boll often seems to display. My second reaction was to immediately question why anyone involved in this would think it would be a good idea to adapt Castlevania. Video game adaptations struggle at the best of times, and Castlevania never struck me as being the most accessible material to adapt.
Suffice it to say, I love being proven wrong, because the first season of Castlevania is actually pretty great.
Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are, but it turns out director Sam Deats and veteran comic, novel, and TV writer Warren Ellis were able to take a decades-old video game that pioneered an entire and beloved sub-genre and turned it into a surprisingly quality bit of interwebz television. If you’re not familiar, Castlevania takes place in the fictional land of Wallachia, which Dracula (McTavish) makes his home. When his wife Lisa (Swallow) is burned at the stake for being a witch (read: knowing what science is), Dracula vows to wipe out every last human being in Wallachia. The only thing stopping him is Trevor Belmont (Armitage), the last son of a noble family that battled monsters and demons, alongside the magician Sypha Belnades (Reynoso), and Dracula’s son Alucard (Callis).
As far as the decisions that have gone into this series, one of the most immediately pleasing and satisfying ones was making Castlevania animated. While live-action is technically entirely feasible, I think it would in the long run prove rather unwieldy for reproducing something that proves to really match the tone and vibe of Castlevania’s gothic roots, to say nothing of how much insanely higher the budget would be. The art style looks absolutely fantastic, taking a great deal of cues of Japanese animes with some more Western influences to craft an immediately engaging dark gothic fantasy world. Every character, every environment, and every action scene is captured in incredibly clean and crisp detail and makes for very pleasing viewing.
With that said, the animated nature of Castlevania isn’t a reason to think its family-friendly viewing (a point I only make because this still somehow confuses people). Castlevania is spectacularly violent at the best of times, and at its bloodiest peak, action scenes are often punctuated by explosions of blood, trails of intestines, decapitations, and just general, down-home, good ol’fashioned family brand crippling, maiming, and dismemberment. It’s all admittedly very jarring in an animated format, though given the series’ extremely dark, gothic trappings and its very Old Testament-brand depiction of a wildly corrupt authoritarian religious institution, it all feels fairly appropriate for the most part.
Pleasingly, in spite of its grim and spectacularly violent trappings, Castlevania is not without a sense of awareness about itself and often strikes a varied tone while maintaining a reasonable consistency. Many scenes in Castlevania are often punctuated by a well-balanced interplay of grim, yet exaggerated violence and navel-gazing dialogue about man’s inhumanity to man and the nature of faith as a force for good or evil, with delightful moments of deadpan humor that never feel overly out of place or trying too hard to be funny or edgy. That said, I did find something oddly jarring about some of Castlevania’s more extended slapstick-y sequences- one particular scene which has Trevor fending off a bunch of drunk bar patrons, with its explosions of blood to and fro, seemed overly gory for what was seemingly intended as a light-hearted slapstick scene, but given that this is really the only time the tone felt off, I can’t complain too much.
I was also rather impressed by how deftly Castlevania managed to tell its story. The entire first season clocks in at only four 20 or so minute episodes, but impressively manages to cut through an incredible amount of narrative in a very short time. Just two minutes in, I was impressed with how quickly the show not only sets up Dracula’s character, but also then effortlessly gives him clear motivation and an impressive level of depth given the origins of the material that Castlevania draws upon. The economical story-telling continues straight through every episode, resulting in a season that excellently sets up the future adventures of Trev, Sypha, and Alucard that I am now insanely excited to see.
That said, I did feel that Castlevania’s relatively truncated season length hampered its ability to tell a truly complete story. While I realise that I just complemented it super hard on how well it sets everything up, that’s kind of the problem- Castlevania is largely set-up in lieu of a more complete story. That’s not to say it doesn’t offer some satisfying narrative threads- Trevor Belmont gets a nice, if not straight-forward character arc that feels well-articulated- but the same can’t be necessarily said for the other characters. Both Sypha and Alucard get a bit shafted in the characterization department, only really getting a baseline amount of characterization across all four episodes that makes both of them end up feeling a little too much like after-thoughts for being principal characters going forward.
In many ways, the first season of Castlevania feels less like a series and much more like a feature film divided up into four parts- since all four episodes really lack contained narratives in their own right and really just function as continuations reliant on one another for a complete context. With that said, I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s even a bad thing, really, just more interesting. I can’t help but feel that with a slightly more generous season length Castlevania might have been able to do more, but its nonetheless impressive what Castlevania does manage to do with the time it’s given.
For me, one of the bigger surprises of Castlevania was its chief villain Dracula. I mentioned earlier how well Castlevania does to set Dracula up as a quasi-sympathetic villain with a clear and understandable motivation, but that still kind of under-sells how curiously charming he is, for what little time he actually appears in Castlevania. The way he’s introduced actually comes off as very un-Dracula in absolutely the right way, and he rides a great line between inhuman force of destruction and painfully human. He’s honestly a bit of a show-stealer for me, for all the five collective minutes he actually shows up in this season. That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t appealing in their own right, but they appeal in a way that’s more comfortably familiar- Trevor as the grizzled disillusioned veteran down on his luck, Sypha as the wide-eyed idealist, and so on. If nothing else, this very human and vulnerable Dracula is one I am very keen to see continue to develop as the series goes forward.
Beyond just Dracula himself, there’s just generally a surprising amount of thoughtfulness and depth that permeates much of Castlevania’s episodes. Dialogue is often very slick and punchy, and at times very pleasingly dramatic in its exploration of themes- there’s one particular exchange between a demon and a corrupt bishop right toward the end of the series that’s really, really fantastic, and was probably my favourite part of the whole show. While some of these forays into philosophising could easily stumble into wanky or pretentious territory, they’re generally very well-handled and feel comfortably aware of what they are, and slip incredibly easily into the very dark and dramatic gothic trappings of the series as a whole.
Overall, Castlevania’s first season feels less like a complete season of TV and more like a mini-series. With its heavy focus on world building and set-up, it works fantastically as a great teaser for something more extensive down the line, but on its own feels a little incomplete, and leaves perhaps a few too many things under-developed to be really satisfying. With that said, its strong story-telling, beautiful art style, pleasing tone and surprisingly deep and thoughtful sensibilities to its material and characters makes Castlevania a delightfully entertaining watch nonetheless.
So, uh, does this mean that video game adaptations are good, now? Please say yes, I so want more good video game stuff.