Netflix’s Castlevania is a dark and violent animated adventure that certainly isn’t for kids. This is old-school vampire fiction that shows reverence to Koji Igarashi’s videogame series, on which the show is based, throughout its four episode run.
Speaking to Richter Belmont at the beginning of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, one of the most beloved entries in the series, Dracula says: “What is a man? A miserable pile of secrets!” It would seem this damming appraisal of humanity was at the forefront of writer Warren Ellis’ mind, as his series seeks to examine why the main vamp hates humanity so much and how it is the secrets that men keep that ultimately undoes them.
Dracula only really features in the first episode, but he’s given good exposition that shows him to be more than a blood-thirsty monster. He’s bemused by a human who seeks him out in his castle, beautifully drawn to evoke designs from the games and covered in candles, which anyone who’s played Castlevania will pick up on.
However, sooner or later, it’s time for Dracula to become the villain of the piece, as he unleashes an army of darkness upon the land of Wallachia, swearing vengeance upon all of humanity, after members of the Church do something pretty stupid. From here, we’re introduced to main monster hunter Trevor Belmont, a Han Solo/Indiana Jones-type vagrant, who fans of the source material will know has a pretty interesting family history. The action follows Trevor’s journey to the city of Gresit and the chaos that is erupting within the city walls, which are now besieged by demons.
It’s a good job Trevor is voiced by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield from the Hobbit films and Lucas in Spooks), because the character has some of the best lines. “Would you please leave my testicles alone?” he says, after receiving several kicks to the under-carriage in a drunken bar brawl. “I’m Trevor fucking Belmont and I’ve never lost a fight to man or beast.”
You can almost here the quote ringing out in the student union or the thousands of clicks, as it becomes the meme of the month. Armitage’s northern lilt gives Trevor a Game of Thrones vibe and his constant cursing serves to underpin this. The fact that most of the cast are British actors helps make the characters credible in this gothic world. Particular praise should be heaped upon Matt Frewer, who voices the villainous Bishop, and whose serpentine delivery betrays the dark heart of his holy man.
The art direction and animation are hugely impressive. They’re most akin to Japanese animation, but there are some stunning landscape stills that evoke western cell animation of the late 80s, which reflects the pop-culture genesis when the Castlevania games were made. Much of the action takes place when the sun is setting, where scenes are drenched in scarlet light, giving a wonderful sense of atmosphere – not only is it the colour of the blood that monsters crave, but it also infers a world on the precipice of plunging into darkness and conflict.
Conflict certainly defines this series, right down to the way in which the garb of the violent priests is all reds and blacks, juxtaposed with the blues and purples of the mystical Speaker tribe. The animosity between these groups in the city of Gresit serves to frame some wonderfully bombastic action. One scene sees a character use a whip to wrench a recently plunged sword from the shoulder of a cyclops, only to have it bicycle-kicked into its eye. This is just one way the action is expertly choreographed; as a nod to fans, even the various monsters are introduced in a way that’s recognisable from the games. This is to be expected from director Adi Shankar, who was responsible for the gritty short Power Rangers film – this guy knows his audience.
It might not seem like an obvious project from Frederator Studios, best known for Adventure Time, due to the animation being such a radical departure from their minimalist, post-modern style. However, Castlevania is so clearly influenced by their understanding of videogame and internet culture, and the show is all the richer as a result.
But it is really Warren Ellis who is responsible for making Castlevania such a success. It is clear that through years of writing for comics, film, TV and videogames, Ellis is able to tap into both the world and characters of Castlevania without making it seem derivative or too far departed from the source material. This is something too often overlooked in adaptions of videogame properties and Ellis’ writing captures the dark yet enticing world of Castlevania perfectly.
Where the series falls down, however, is in its music. The games are full of evocative melodies that are ripe for inclusion, but too often Trevor Morris’ score takes a back seat. Occasionally, it slips into synthesised overtures that go too far in beating the audience over the head with the fact that this is based on a game.
On the subject of wasted opportunities, making this a four-episode run cuts proceedings a little short; overall, the pacing is pretty even, balancing exposition with action, but some scenes feel a little rushed and some could have been cut to make others longer. When the final showdown wraps up – and holy water, if it isn’t a fantastic spectacle – it’s clear that this story can continue, but for a narrative that seems to be so consistent in its tone as an adult fantasy drama, this does feel a little bit Saturday Morning Fun Hour and that’s a shame. The news that the show will return for an expanded Part 2, therefore, is extremely welcome.
Ultimately, Castlevania is a good romp that has been intelligently and lovingly produced by a cast and crew that seem to understand exactly what made fans so passionate about the series in the first place. We can’t wait for it to rise from the grave once again.
Castlevania: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.