Castlevania has risen from the dead.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
It is thoroughly depressing to think about the unfortunate fate which has fallen onto the Castlevania video game franchise. After a failed reboot, of sorts, with the Lords of Shadow titles, Konami has shown no signs of reviving the series (or their own reputation). Although a semblance of the 2D action/adventure classic still exists in an upcoming spiritual successor by former director Koji Igarashi, the name Castlevania has essentially faded from the video game sphere.
But Castlevania lives on in another medium–an animated series which just debuted on Netflix. Produced by Adi Shankar (Dredd, The Grey, Lone Survivor), who is a huge video game and Castlevania fan in his own right, this animated series pours plenty of the video games’ most popular characters, backgrounds, tropes, and imagery into a setting that longtime fans will immediately recognize, and surely appreciate. Familiar heroes like Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades, and Alucard echo the cast of playable characters from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse on the original NES. Whips, holy water, and magic are the arsenals used to fend off demonic creatures, including the classic Cyclops that fires a stone-inducing beam from its eye.
Newcomers to Castlevania lore likely won’t experience the same kind of glee, but the inaugural four episodes are more than accessible for someone who has never touched a Castlevania game before. Whether you’re a veteran at commanding the Belmonts to crack the whip, or you’re just intrigued by the concept of a gothic horror adventure, Netflix’s take on Castlevania introduces a compelling dark fantasy world where magic, religion, and evil blur together as man’s folly brings a horrific calamity upon the land of Wallachia.
If some of those new viewers happen to be children, let us hope for the love of all things holy that someone, anyone, tears the remote from their hands. Shankar boasted that this would be a show for adults, and the man told no lie. Castlevania is bathed in grisly subject matter, and features some truly gruesome moments of death, carnage, and gore.
Parents–it doesn’t matter that this is animation. It is not intended for your child.
The very first episode drives this home. In fact, the first few minutes, alone, achieve this, with a slow, brutal death of an innocent woman. Things get no more cheerful from there, as Dracula’s rage soon erupts, and eventually is unleashed upon humanity in the form of some mesmerizing sequences. These apocalyptic moments of sheer devastation are realized through impressive animation that captures all of the horror you would expect from catastrophes so biblical. They’re eerily entertaining; they’ll leave you with a morbid curiosity at what they would look like with big budget, CGI effects, if they weren’t so grisly.
The action following is more of a slow burn, finally boiling over in time for the last episode, where the animation, again, holds up nicely. The environments where all of this takes place look great, shifting between ornate castle interiors, sanctified cathedral halls, shadowy labyrinths, and plenty of disheveled streets littered with trash, debris, and bodies. Some characters’ faces prove to be the only sore spot where it comes to the imagery; a few faces have excessive lining, which makes them look old and wrinkled, rather than realistic.
The ample blood may not be for the squeamish, but it splashes around cleanly on screen. There’s a spot here and there where it obviously was included for no other reason than to amuse gorehounds, but it largely feels appropriate for this world of chaos, at least, much more than some of the dialogue.
In addition to all of the blood and viscera, Castlevania wards off younger viewers with plentiful vulgarity and explicit humor, both of which are wildly out of place in the story trying to be told. Ironically, in attempting to maintain its “adult” image by loading up on F-bombs, shots to the testicles, and the like, Castlevania occasionally comes off as being terribly juvenile. The moments of crass comic relief–which are far too numerous in the second and third episodes–are worse than just being tiresome, as they lead to jarring tonal shifts which waste any gravity that came beforehand. One minute, we see a brief glimpse of a winged demon carrying a dead infant in its jaws, and the next, the main character is making a joke about fecal matter. It makes you question just what kind of emotion the show is attempting to procure.
When Castlevania takes itself seriously, establishing a world filled with horror and the supernatural, it’s a compelling dark fantasy. But when it’s trying to elicit a cheer or a cringe through excessive gore and uncouth jokes, it’s so lowbrow that it can’t even be considered fan service.
Our main character, Trevor Belmont, is sadly the biggest culprit of the immaturity. He has a fascinating background as the last member of the disgraced Belmont clan, and he mans up when the action comes to a head in the last episode, but to get to that, you have to endure two episodes of a boorish, less eccentric version of Jack Sparrow. He’s hardly what a Belmont should be like.
Interestingly, enough, it’s not the good guys who are the most compelling characters–it’s the bad guys who command your attention. In just one episode, Dracula goes through a great character arc that takes him from an enigmatic, genius loner to an other-worldly, vengeful monster. Making those previously mentioned sequences of carnage all the more macabre is that you won’t entirely feel bad for all of the victims. The show makes you sympathize with Dracula, the very being who quite literally rains down hell onto Wallachia.
The real people to hate are the stubborn members of the Church. Dracula may be the antagonist, but the villains are the clergymen. It’s their ignorance that conjures Dracula’s unrelenting wrath, in the first place, and their refusal to acknowledge their mistakes only serves to get more and more innocent people killed.
Sypha Belnades is there, as if the son of Dracula, himself, Alucard, but neither have a lot of time to develop. With a full season to flesh out, both could be memorable characters. Alucard has the most potential; here’s a half-human, half-vampire spawn of Dracula, who chooses to combat his father’s rage (over his mother’s death) in following what he believes would be his mother’s wish for peace.
They tease you, and that can be said about this first season, as a whole. At only four episodes, you’ll breeze through this in an hour an half. It grabs you, and wets your appetite for more with terrific bookend episodes that set the stage for what could be an exciting conflict with Dracula’s army. Netflix has already confirmed that an eight-episode season 2 is underway, speculated to release in 2018. Here’s to hoping that a few extra episodes will be just what this series needs to reach its true potential.
+ Contains enough essence of the source material to charm longtime fans, while staying accessible for newcomers
+ Solid animation that successfully choreographs the action, and scenes of widespread calamity
+ Sets a sobering tone with chilling and tragic subject matter
— The tone falls apart whenever the story attempts humor with crude jokes and excessive vulgarity
— Trevor Belmont is an utter buffoon most of the time
— The four episode running time merely offers a glimpse at what the series may be capable of
Jeff Pawlak is a lifelong Castlevania fan who got his start with the series all the way back on the NES, and honed his craft of fighting vampires with the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS entries. He’s as bummed as anyone is that Konami has left the games to languish, but he’s excited by this promising animated series (he is a huge anime and animation fan, after all). Catch him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs for more of his thoughts on Netflix’s Castlevania going forward.
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