The result of almost a decade of development hell, which is fitting. In the four chewy, 22-minute episodes of Netflix’s Castlevania, written by Warren Ellis and based on Konami’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, from 1989, you get a lot of hell: swirling columns of hellfire; the gnashing teeth of bloodthirsty hellbeasts; and Hell’s very own Count Vlad Dracula Tepes, the lovesick embodiment of evil.
Four episodes? Doesn’t sound like a lot.
It isn’t, but luckily the beefier 8-episode second season of Castlevania was commissioned on the morning that this season was released so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
Okay. What’s it about?
Love, of course. And vampires and demons and such. But mostly love.
It starts with love, anyway. Dracula (Graham McTavish), being an old romantic, falls for a scholastic human woman, Lisa (Emily Swallow), who is promptly burned at the stake by the church on suspicion of witchcraft and collusion with otherworldly entities – the latter being a crime that she’s definitely guilty of, but I digress. Vlad, in response, descends on Wallachia and delivers an ultimatum: Either everyone clears off within a year (he’s very specific about the timeframe, as though he’s worried the people aren’t really taking him seriously) or he’ll send his frothing minions to butcher everyone. Fast-forward a year or so, and you can more or less imagine where we’re at.
More or less. This first season is largely scene-setting preamble for what’s presumably coming next, introducing characters and magic and mythology such that you understand who’s who and what’s what going forwards. To that end, each episode largely pivots around one character: the first, “Witchbottle”, being a rather sympathetic introduction to Vlad (although it admittedly starts raining viscera before the end); the second, “Necropolis”, our proper meet-and-greet with Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the pissed-up antiheroic descendent of the monster-hunting (and disgraced) Belmont family; the third, “Labyrinth”, a showcase of Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), a spell-slinging magician of a heretical order known as the Speakers; and the finale, “Monument”, finally revealing Dracula’s son, Alucard (James Callis). That last one might constitute a spoiler, but most people who’re interested in this already know the story of the game, and for the rest the name won’t mean anything anyway.
It’s mightily weird, and the dialogue is sometimes quite appalling, but on the whole it’s a really competent introduction to a world that is… well, mightily weird, now that I think about it. It doesn’t have that exclusive, insiders-only feel that a lot of adaptations do, either – there’s fan-service, sure, but nothing that feels as though it would be discordant for anyone unfamiliar with the lore. I was slightly disappointed that nobody found and ate a full roast chicken hidden behind a bricked-up wall, but when you drag a property across mediums, I guess concessions must be made.
Ah, yeah. It’s a video game adaptation.
It is, and judged by the standards of most of them it’s pretty much a masterpiece. It does occur to me that episodic television (especially animated episodic television) might be the best way to adapt video game stories; a TV season is slightly more reminiscent of a game’s length and structure, and you can hand-draw and animate things that would be financially or artistically untenable in live-action. Castlevania has that going for it, certainly.
Is the animation any good?
It’s fine – reminiscent of traditional Japanese anime and Ayami Kojima’s artwork in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I’ve heard people complain about it, but I imagine most viewers with less die-hard sensibilities won’t give much of a shit either way.
Some of the character designs are a bit flat, but the various supernatural beasties are lavished with attention, and the action sequences are surprisingly practical-looking for a show about lords of Hell and the undead.
How’s the voice work?
Generally pretty excellent, although that’s mostly to be expected with such geek-savvy casting. Richard Armitage lends Trevor a dry wit, but also flashes of his snatched nobility; Trevor’s characterisation is one of the show’s best elements, and Armitage sells every moment of his redemptive arc. It’s a great character who runs the emotional gamut from drunken bravado to snarky disinterest to good, old-fashioned, stern heroism. Bit of anger and frustration here, bit of wise-cracking and hopefulness there, and, ladies and gentlemen, we have a character worth following around.
Elsewhere, Matt Frewer plays the villainous church Bishop with lip-licking evil enthusiasm, and despite how nakedly, unnecessarily evil Wallachia’s church seems to be, Frewer plays up their blind dogma as though it’s something worth believing in. His exchange with a chatty demon in the fourth episode is a particularly wonderful scene, which felt, to me, like a distillation of almost everything worth adapting about the Castlevania property.
So, was it worth adapting?
All available evidence seems to suggest yes, it was. It’s obviously difficult to tell in only four short episodes, especially when the finale feels so rushed, and if you were in a particularly picky mood you could list a hundred things that don’t work. (The music. Good lord, what have they done?)
But there’s so much to enjoy here – the absurdist church exchange, a wealth of gory action, a monumental rallying-cry to Wallachia’s peasant population – that it would be impossible for me not to recommend Castlevania. If you’re a fan of the games, fill your boots. But even if you’re not, this is solid, competent television with a fair helping of charm and a lot of promise. I’ll see you in one year – that’s one year, okay folks? Twelve months, a year – for season two.
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