TV Review: Castlevania

Like many others, hearing the announcement that there would be an animated Castlevania series evoked a number of concerns within me. Even after seeing the most well-established plot-driven video games fall to Hollywood’s curse of horrid adaptations, I was beginning to think that no franchise would break the voodoo that seemingly lurked over their heads, especially not one based on a game from 1986. How well can that possibly translate? What level of authenticity would it display, if any, and can it capture the magic of the timeless franchise that’s as old as gaming itself?

The answer is yes, yes it can.

It’s not perfect, but Castlevania’s jump to Netflix restores some faith in me that a video game story can successfully make the leap to television or film. Its wickedly intriguing villain, enthralling dark medieval fantasy setting, and solid voice acting and animation put it on the elite list of Netflix originals. It’s a faithful adaptation whose shortcomings come in the form of its limited episode cap and clichéd story devices that stop the season one short of excellence, but manages to tick most of the right boxes.

Adi Shankar, a man all too familiar with dark adaptations of older IPs, producer behind the R-rated Power Rangers bootleg, Punisher: Dirty Laundry, and many others, forms a perfect team with genius Warren Ellis, writer of countless violent animated series such as Wolverine, Blade, and 2009’s hit horror video game Dead Space. Both Shankar and Ellis appreciate what makes the original property so special, but they also clearly understand what elements are and aren’t needed to convey a drab world that still manages to contain a little fun and humour.

As I’ve said before in other reviews, a story is only as good as its villain, and Vlad Dracula Tepes may be the most recognisable villain in all of dark fantasy. Castlevania’s Dracula isn’t just an all seeing benevolent evil, he’s a broken soul. After experiencing a heinous tragedy and witnessing the loss of his greatest love, Dracula swears vengeance on mankind — and, as the audience, can we blame him?

It’s this sympathetic element that makes Dracula’s revenge so satisfying to watch. I don’t necessarily like the fact he’s butchering thousands of people and opening the pits of hell, but I understand his motives. Voicing Dracula with a deep crispness is Graham McTavish (Hobbit, Preacher), who does a stellar job of conveying the pain and wrath of the prince of darkness. It’s truly the standout voice of the series so far, and may be one of the best voice acting performances in recent memory.

In later episodes, Dracula loses all screen time. In contrast to the immortal vampire is the series’ alternate antagonist: the Church. The Bishop and the rest of the clergy goons are all-around evil, and as much as it makes sense with the themes of “fearing what is the unknown,” the church kind of seems evil just for the sake of it. The Bishop, who is voiced by Orphan Black actor Matt Frewer, is a downright sinister man whose sole objective seems to simply be burn anyone who he thinks God doesn’t like. He’s an asshole with no real depth or purpose beyond being a brainwashed egotistical menace who makes you say, “Oh I really can’t wait to see this dude die” whenever he is on screen.

In most dark fantasies that involve vampires and eastern Europe, the protagonist is a shining champion of justice, destined to rid the land of evil. Here? Not so much. Ellis brings his signature grim satirical style to the series’ protagonist Trevor Belmont, who fits the antihero mould completely. He’s not just a wise-cracking and cynical drunk, however.

Castlevania continues the theme of fear and loss with Belmont, whose family has been persecuted by the church and deemed by the public as unholy monster killers. Trevor no longer cares for the follies of man, but through a clichéd turn of events, he again takes up the sword and whip for good. The voice behind the whip-branding monster slayer is Richard Armitage (The Hobbit, Hannibal), who does a mostly decent job of conveying Belmont’s constant brash and cheeky attitude, though sometimes his voice almost sounds too subtle for the character.

Joining him in his journey is the good-willed Sypha Belnades, voiced by Alejandra Reynoso (Winx). She’s not a female character shoehorned in for diversity and a neat tie-in to the original game, though; she acts as Trevor’s only positive influence and a morale bridge back to what his family stood for. She holds her own and serves as the conduit for some of the shows better lines.

Season one does a lot of character and world establishing in its four-episode run, but occasionally, Castlevania displays some more visceral moments as well as a few smooth animated action sequences. There isn’t a lot of over-the-top combat exactly, but the glimpses we get at the higher quality of animation stands out as perhaps Castlevania season one’s best instants that promise additional shining moments in the future.

Castlevania also shows off worthy character design of a series that oozes a legendary gothic style, especially that of the vampires in the show, who move and appear like vampires should. They’re graceful in a terrifying manner and maintain all the qualities a classic vampire should possess.

As you can imagine in a show with vampires, slaughter, talk of sex with animals, and the occasional F-bomb drop, Castlevania isn’t a show for the faint-hearted or the young. That said, Castlevania never oversteps its boundaries, despite how much Shankar and Ellis would like to push it. Instead, it actually utilises the shows gratuitousness nature in a stylistic manner, mainly in the form of its colour palettes and framing. An assortment of different shades of red constantly treat the eye, and the intelligent use of simple shots — like one of the Bishop’s hand slowly gripping tighter and tighter as he talked about his control on men — really unveil that the showrunners put thought into every aspect of every episode.

Containing only four episodes that run a little over 20 minutes each, Castlevania season one seems to be entirely devoted to establishing its core cast of characters as well as the factions within it. I could imagine doing so much in a four-episode frame would be a difficult feat, but a mature animated show based on a video game from the ’80s is probably a hard sell, so I understand Netflix’s hesitation to allow a grander first season. Unfortunately, this leaves Castlevania season with a lot left to be desired in the terms of a solid payoff.

The first season of Castlevania restores (if only a little) faith back into the idea that a video game can indeed break ground and successfully make a good story told via television or film. Luckily for audiences, however, season two has already been greenlit and will contain double the episodes, meaning there’s a lot to look forward to. For now, we can only hope the showmakers take the positive aspects of season one and step on the metaphorical pedal, capitalising on the shows violence, style, and deliciously dark setting.