Featuring the Voices of Richard Armitage, Graham McTavish, James Callis, Alejandra Reynoso, Emily Swallow, Tony Amendola, Matt Frewer
Now Streaming on Netflix
Konami’s Castlevania series has been around for over 30 years. With more than 20 titles to its name, it is one of the longest and most expanded upon franchises in video game history. Created by a team led by Hitoshi Akamatsu, the series follows the Belmont clan throughout several centuries as they face the ever-present threat of Dracula and his forces of evil. While the most popular characters in the series have been Simon, Trevor, and Richter Belmont, players have also been able to take control of Alucard, Dracula’s son, Sypha Belnades, Grant Danasty, Maria Renard, Eric Lecarde, and more.
With a storyline that is so rich and full of lore, it seems like it would be the perfect universe from which to draw upon for films or other visual media. And while a film has been in the works for more than a decade, it seems that we’re no closer now to seeing such a title than we were when it was announced.
However, a few months ago, Netflix revealed that they were working with Adi Shankar on an animated “Castlevania” series, which premiered its first season on the streaming service today. After years of playing the games and months of eagerly awaiting this release, I binged all four episodes and am here to let you know my thoughts.
The series is a retelling of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which was originally released in 1989 in Japan (1990 in the United States and 1992 in Europe). However, instead of immediately following Trevor Belmont and his mission to face Dracula, we are instead taken to Wallachia in 1455 and introduced to Lisa, a young woman who actively seeks out Vlad Dracula Tepes to make use of his scientific equipment on her journey to become a doctor. Surprised and taken aback by her confident nature and her lack of fear at his presence, Dracula welcomes her into his home. We cut to 1475, 20 years later, where Lisa is being burned at the stake for supposed witchcraft, all coordinated by a local Bishop and the townsfolk. Her murder is found out by Dracula, who has spent the last several years trying to push aside his vampiric nature and live like a human. However, the loss of Lisa, who he married and loved, destroys all of those walls that he carefully constructed and his evil nature comes roaring back with fire, brimstone, blood, and promises of carnage. Dracula’s face, constructed of flame, appears in the Heavens like some wrathful deity to tell the people of Wallachia that they have one year to gather their belongings and leave, lest they fall prey to his fury and are wiped from the face of the Earth by his army of demonic creatures.
All of this happens in the first episode, plus more, which gives Dracula a tragic backstory, one that makes this story far more emotionally complex than the game would have you imagine. Whereas the 1989 title simply had Trevor acting as a hero against a one-dimensional villain, this series focuses on making sure that we recognize that there is often more than meets the eye and that humanity isn’t reserved for humans. We live relatively short lives and it is up to us to make sure that our character and nature are something we can look back at with pride and a sense of certainty that we have led good lives. Dracula has no such obligation and yet for 20 years he gave it a shot. Had Lisa not been taken from him by such a callous Church, this story would not need to be told.
In the following episodes, we are introduced to Trevor Belmont, who is a wandering vagabond thanks to the Church excommunicating his family and branding them as heretics. He makes his way from town to town, drinking himself into oblivion before finding random trees to sleep under before waking up and doing it all over again. In the first bar we meet him in, he gets into a fight with the locals and he’s kicked twice in the groin, a detail I bring up for a later event. We see his aptitude at battle and we learn about the nature of his character, which is someone who wants to avoid fighting and doesn’t want to get involved when he sees events that feel wrong. However, he can’t help it. At his core, Trevor is a good man, one who will do what it takes, however begrudgingly, to do the right thing.
Trevor’s journeys take him to Gresit, where the townspeople are under siege from Dracula’s army, the dead littering the streets, heads on pikes, entrails ghoulishly used as rope, and babies eaten out of their cribs. Oh, yeah. The show is incredibly gory and doesn’t shy away from vicious and violent visuals. If anything, it recognizes that such a universe requires there to be extreme visuals to reflect the horrific nature of the situation that this corner of the world finds itself in. It is here that he meets Sypha Belnades, a young magician who is part of a group called The Speakers, nomads who travel to collect history. Together, they seek out the Sleeping Soldier, a mythical warrior who is supposed to aid in the fight against Dracula, who lies somewhere deep in the catacombs underneath Gresit. This legendary warrior turns out to be Alucard, Dracula’s son. Not believing that they can work together, Belmont attacks Alucard and a tense, exciting fight unfolds. At one point, their swords are locked in a show of strength. During this moment, Belmont knees Alucard in the groin, to which there is the statement, “Please, this isn’t a bar fight. Have some class.” It’s a wonderful callback to the events in the second episode and showcases smart humor, one that doesn’t rely upon wacky animated goofs or outrageous visuals.
This leads me to my next point, which is that the series is obviously taking itself 100% seriously. Any parent who sees this on Netflix and thinks, “Oh, it’s a cartoon. It should be fine for my young children” will be very upset with what their kids witness. As previously mentioned, there is no shortage of gore and horrifying visuals. Additionally, there’s strong language, heavy themes of mistrust against the Church, monsters, demons, and more. In other words, the creators of this series recognized that the real audience for this show would be the adults who played these games as children. As a result, it’s an honor to watch “Castlevania” because I feel like everyone involved has the same passion and love for the franchise as I do.
By aiming the series at adults, we not only get a visually and thematically mature show, it also allows it to delve into the mythology and lore that has followed the game series for so many years. We are led to believe that the majority of the Church clergy are biased, vengeful people who believe they have good intentions but are so blinded by their misplaced zeal that they don’t realize the evil they are committing. We see that Trevor Belmont is not an admirable hero but a flawed one, although he eventually does what needs to be done. We feel Dracula’s pain as he suffers the loss of one he loves but pull away in disgust at his Biblical wrath. There is no good versus evil here. It’s absolutely fascinating to witness such wonderful writing being applied to a video game adaptation, a subgenre that is often maligned and misunderstood.
Visually, the series is magnificent. There is a strange sensation where I want to describe the colors as both vibrant and muted, which I realize makes no sense but I can’t shake that feeling. The visual palette feels like it was taken directly from the original games and, to quote Tom Waits, you’ll see, “…Halloween orange and chimney red” as well as cobalt blue, gravestone gray, earthy brown, and more.
My only real complaint with the series is composer Trevor Morris, whose music is perfectly suitable but doesn’t have that snap and charm that many of the Castlevania games had. The original tunes mixed “Gothic” with “catchy” in brilliant ways, sounding almost at points like Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Perhaps if I heard Morris’ music out of context and on its own I’d find an appreciation. But if I have to go that route, I feel like something isn’t right in the first place. That being said, I have to reiterate that they are perfectly serviceable and don’t harm the viewing experience in any way.
Netflix’s “Castlevania” performed magic by hitting my childhood nostalgia while offering my adult self something substantial and exciting. As I mentioned before, it’s clear that this series was created with love and passion. The first four episodes act as a foundation for the rest of the story and while a full story, complete with beginning, middle, and end, could have been created in the 90 or so minutes that this season runs, I am thankful that the calculated risk was taken to instead give us a taste of what’s to come. Now all we have to do is wait for the second season!