While calling Netflix’s animated Castlevania series a full season is a bit misleading – it’s essentially four 25-minute episodes that feel more like a prologue to a much larger endeavor – what has been delivered, however brief, is an utterly fantastic adaptation of one the most beloved and enduring videogame franchises in the medium.
It also stands firmly on its own merits, regardless of your history with the series.
Castlevania: Season One is based loosely on the third game of the franchise, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which was released for the NES nearly thirty years ago and, chronologically speaking, is essentially the beginning of the Castlevania narrative. (Though there are some earlier games on the timeline)
In an interesting twist, the first episode is dedicated to the backstory of Dracula (Graham McTavish) – a reclusive exile living in his grandiose but lonely castle – as he is sought out by a young, ambitious woman (Emily Swallow), unafraid of his reputation and moved to seek his guidance and wisdom as a student of science. Bemused and intrigued by her courage and passion, he invites her to stay as his guest and study the knowledge he has accumulated over the centuries. Sometime later, having fallen in love, they are married and Dracula, on a sabbatical at the urging of his wife for the purpose of reconnecting with humankind, arrives home to discover she has been burned at the stake as a heretic and a witch, specifically because of her pursuit of science. Enraged, Dracula grants humanity one year before he unleashes a supernatural, genocidal campaign to obliterate what he sees as the human scourge entirely from the planet.
This backstory is an intriguing slant on a character that has been traditionally unsympathetic and portrayed as largely malevolent, imbuing his actions with a bit of sympathetic justification, regardless of his admittedly evil machinations. The notion of Dracula being a solitary hermit whose rage is awakened by a craven and brutal act against the love of his life is a unique way to set up the character as something more than a two-dimensional megalomaniac and despot.
The show then shifts to an introduction of Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), member of House Belmont, a family that for generations swore an oath to defend humanity against supernatural malignancies. However, the proliferation of Christianity has seen the Belmont clan excommunicated and disgraced by the Catholic Church, with Trevor now a wandering vagabond and drunkard who stumbles upon a conflict between a corrupt bishop and a group of seers called The Speakers, who are being scapegoated for the dark violence now spreading throughout the countryside. Among their ranks Trevor makes a rapid alliance with a powerful female sorcerer, Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and the two unite to pursue an end to Dracula’s menace.
There’s a significant amount of world-building in Castlevania, astutely woven into a pre-existing, mosaic-like mythos which has been essentially pieced together by numerous games over the years. Though only a handful of prominent characters are introduced in the course of four short episodes, all of them are fleshed out relatively well, especially Trevor, who, though a bit of a sullen grump, is given several opportunities to let his heroics shine as tensions escalate.
As animated shows go, Castlevania enjoys a solid script. Penned by veteran comic book scribe Warren Ellis, the story he weaves in these first episodes is tight, focused, and enjoyable. While there is an occasional bit of clunky dialogue or odd bit of humor that falls flat, most of the writing is quite good and the voicework is, overall, superb. Likewise, the visuals are respectable and though not spectacular, they effectively emulate the disparate aesthetics of the numerous games within the franchise and arrive at a type of visual compromise that manages to represent the overall look and feel of the series cohesively.
Where the show truly shines however is the action, which is excellent and reflective of a game franchise that has always been, primarily, a combat-driven endeavor. Trevor’s talents as a warrior are given plenty of screen time and the battles are fast, frantic and filled with the types of excessive, over-the-top flourishes that might look downright silly in a live action film but come off as nothing less than stellar in an animated movie. Of note are battles Trevor has with a basement-dwelling cyclops and an epic confrontation with another series mainstay, Alucard (James Callis), resulting in a protracted fight that sees both combatants pulling out all the stops as they try to best each other. It’s also important to note that the whip – the primary weapon of the franchise – is utilized to its fullest potential here, with Trevor wielding his consecrated weapon to strike down both human and non-human enemies alike with nimble ferocity.
Castlevania is also an unapologetically violent affair, with copious gore, dismemberment, and even some genuinely disturbing scenes of hapless villagers being slaughtered by Dracula’s encroaching horde of satanic beasts. While this violence is never gratuitous, it does brand the series as something meant for mature viewers instead of some trite, Saturday morning TV show aimed at selling cereal and cheap, plastic toys. Animation here in the U.S. has always struggled for legitimacy among older viewers and Castelvania is further evidence that an animated series can offer mature, compelling content.
The only problem with the series is that this first season simply feels half-baked. The whole thing can be watched in well under two hours and ends abruptly, just when things really begin to get interesting. While I’m encouraged that Netflix has already ordered a second season, I sincerely wish they had invested a bit more money into making this first season something more substantive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that season one of Castlevania feels more like a tease of something larger and more ambitious and hopefully, that promise will come to fruition when season two arrives at a later date.
Regardless, Castlevania is a fantastic, fun romp through a familiar franchise that should make the majority of fanboys (and girls) grin widely. It’s the kind of thing I’m a bit shocked was even made but more surprising is that it is clearly a labor of love and dedication, fashioned by a creative team who respect the source material enough to make it a worthy extension of an already prolific and intriguing fictional continuum.
Let’s hope season 2 can keep up the pace.