Whilst large budget blockbuster video game movies are now fairly common – albeit not always successful ones – there have been few attempts to adapt the medium into a more episodic format. Bucking this trend is Netflix’s animated series based on the long-running Castlevania series. Although appearing seemingly out of nowhere this year, the project had in fact been dormant for 12 years. In true vampiric fashion, however, it has now leapt onto the screen covered in gore and aimed squarely at an adult, if not necessarily mature, audience.
Clearly inspired by the pseudo-Shakespearean tone of the most recent Lord of Shadow series, the show treads a thin line between over the top violence and taking itself a little too seriously. On the whole it manages to balance these extremes over its brief run.
Written by the mighty Warren Ellis, it might be expected that Castlevania would explore new and interesting aspects of the lore and universe of the game series. What we get instead is akin to a grindhouse version of the Hugh Jackman Van Helsing with a large slice of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Vampire narratives are invariably subject to clichés and tropes and Castlevania is no exception.
Its most interesting aspect involves Dracula’s happy domestic life married to a local wise woman, but such is the breakneck pace of the series that there is little space for this to be fully explored. Almost as soon as they meet, we witness Lisa Tepes being burned at the stake by a stereotypically medieval baying mob led by Catholic priests. When Dracula returns – we don’t discover where he has been, but I’d guess a regional vampire conference – to discover his house in ruins and his wife executed for witchcraft, he is understandably peeved. This motivation is a welcome way of reinvigorating the character of Vlad, but loses some of its emotive power due to how rapidly it develops.
The dialogue won’t be challenging for any awards except for an award for the most egregious and gratuitous use of swearing this side of an NWA album. I’m not sure whether this is an attempt to present what the writers believe to be an authentically medieval experience or they mistook the language used by players for that of characters during their research, but whatever the reason it too often comes across as try-hard and unnecessary. I’m no prude and enjoy cursing more than most, but here it feels too much like an edgy fan dub rather than dialogue written by an acclaimed comic writer.
Moreover, there is no Sir Patrick Stewart here to relentlessly chew the scenery in a nod to his wonderfully hammy performance in the Lords of Shadow. Instead, the main star name is Richard Armitage, best known for appearing in costume dramas such as North and South. He does well with what he is given here, for the most part, and provides Trevor Belmont with an appropriately world-weary and cynical air.
Perhaps the most striking example of the foul-mouthed tone of the series can be seen in the second episode, ‘Necropolis’, in which we are introduced to Belmont. He is sat Aragorn-like in a bar whilst local peasants relate an oddly developed anecdote about one of their neighbours having sex with a goat. What this whole conversation adds to the series is anybody’s guess, but it does lead to an unsubtle segue into Castlevania lore, as they go on to discuss the animosity between peasants and the ruling families in Wallachia and the excommunication of the Belmonts by the church. The fact that this exchange is granted almost an equal amount of screen time as Dracula’s motivation perhaps reveals the priorities of the production.
Despite my reservations at the dialogue in the series, Castlevania does provide a highly successful amount of action. The bar fight that follows the conversation above does well in establishing Belmont’s character, but is soon eclipsed by larger scale fights against both monsters and armed zealots. Belmont’s ruthless treatment of the latter would have benefitted from us knowing more about the abuses of the clergy. As it stands, Belmont merely seems to be carrying out the vengeance for which Dracula has motivation. The armed monks are clearly to be seen as the baddies and videogame logic dictates that they must be dispatched. One later setpiece battle between Belmont and these monks shows Castlevania at its action-packed, fan service best, as Trevor employs a number of the series’ iconic sub-weapons in his favour.
It’s all quite appropriately blood-drenched and Gothic. Gore fills the screen, accompanied by blasts of magic and explosions in true videogame action fashion. The anime style is generally successful, but there are moments when transitions between full animation and a more static style become a little jarring. Whether this is a deliberate aesthetic choice or a symptom of rushed development is uncertain, but they thankfully do little to tarnish the experience.
With just four episodes, each under half an hour in length, this brevity means that what we have feels more like a movie-length pilot, and can certainly be watched in one sitting. Almost immediately upon release, it was announced that Castlevania would be returning in 2018 as an 8 episode series, news that goes some way to alleviating the inevitable ‘to be continued’ nature of the ending.
All in all, Castlevania is one of the better attempts to take videogames into non-interactive media, but that is perhaps damning it with faint praise. It does well to set the scene for the newly-commissioned second series but never truly breaks out of its role as an introduction. At times guilty of odd pacing, I can’t help but feel that it would be more successful if recut into a feature-length pilot. Certainly, that would be a more honest way of presenting what we have here; four episodes is surely not a season. All that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation of Belmont’s adventures in Wallachia and am eager to see how the inevitable showdown with Dracula is brought about.
While not a must see, if you have access to Netflix then it is well worth the two hours or so runtime.