If you had told me 30 years ago that I’d be watching an animated show based on Castlevania, one of my favorite video game series of all time, I would have lost it.
We’ve come a long way since the last animated depiction of a Belmont. Gone is the vain and bumbling depiction of Simon Belmont from Captain N: The Game Master. Instead, we go way back to the prequel era of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse from the NES. When Netflix announced this show, I was initially hesitant. Video game to screen adaptations still usually don’t go well. And Konami is more depressingly known for pachinko games than video games these days. So while hopeful, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I love Gothic Horror in the Ravenloft vein, and yet, there’s so little of it done well. Or done at all, these days. Castlevania bathes in the atmosphere. The series starts out with a young woman named Lisa who bravely strides into Vlad Tepes’ (Dracula) keep to request knowledge to help improve her medical arts. Vlad initially is wary, and despite his initial intention to make her a snack, is impressed by her selflessness and fearlessness. In the end, she is the one making the bargain: She wants to Vlad to help her become a better doctor, while in return, Vlad must attempt to better understand what humanity is.
To delve into minor spoilers, the Church, or more specifically, a Bishop with a lust for power and rigid devotedness to the “righteous word”, burns Lisa at the stake for the crimes of witchcraft. This does not go well.
This goes extremely poorly.
An enraged Dracula gives the town one year to make their peace before he rains the forces of Hell down upon them as revenge. The Church does not listen, and by proxy, neither do the townspeople. What started as poor goes to as bad as it can possibly get as the countryside is ravaged by demons. And with the one family that could have helped having been excommunicated, all hope is lost.
Make no mistake: This show pulls no punches. I was left wide eyed by how far they pushed the limits of evil and gore from the creatures of the night, and for those that are uncomfortable about blatant corruption found within a religious context, this war of religion versus the supernatural shows true villainy on both sides.
In the middle of this war is Trevor Belmont, a former vampire and monster hunter excommunicated by the church. With his family name in shambles, Trevor is more apt to spend his nights in bars picking fights with local braggarts. Of course, he can’t deny his true calling, and when he starts brandishing his whip and sword once more against the undead, things start getting exciting.
There are more than enough callbacks to the game series for fans. There were more than a few times where I couldn’t help but grin as I knew what was coming, or the tiny nods and references found throughout. And yet, this show doesn’t make a spectacle of these references. In fact, people completely unfamiliar with the game would have no problem following the newly fleshed out and morally complex story. This is one of the reason why this series succeeds in areas that video game to media adaptations never do: They can’t ever reconcile the game elements into a plausible story format. Here, Castlevania focuses on story first.
The animation is beautiful and detailed. Presented in an anime style, the visual symbolism and perspectives are beautiful and frame the character motivations well. As I mentioned before, the series is gory. This is by no means a “kid’s cartoon” or a good choice of “I loved this game as a kid, so I’m going to share this with my kid.” Hold off for a while. The violence, language and religious overtones are absolutely for mature audiences.
The story itself is dark and compelling. Castlevania is a story of the folly of man against a force of nature that it has no business trying to goad into a fight. Its blatant disregard for understanding and compassion is what drives the horror that it brings upon itself. This is tempered by a man who has lost everything disregarding his pain and doing what is morally right.
Trevor Belmont is initially portrayed as drunken, sarcastic, and mercenary. However, his skill in a fight is more than competent, and when driven to heed his true calling, is a master tactician and warrior. Sypha Belnades, a magician from the game, and a Speaker Magician here, is a young woman driven by her values and the need to do what is right. She helps to temper Trevor’s self-absorbed grief, and together as a team, are formidable against the supernatural. And yes, the son of Dracula, Alucard, is referenced well throughout the series, resulting in a satisfying conclusion. There is, however, one piece of this puzzle still missing. One I hope that they will address.
Castlevania is dark, moody, atmospheric, and compelling. This series is played as straight as it gets (the humor provides a nice break throughout the series), and the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking. My biggest gripe is is that for a “series”, it’s only four episodes long, each at 25 minutes. It feels like a movie that was broken up into four parts to justify calling it a series. It also ends at a point where things really start happening, so while I am grateful that Season 2 is confirmed, I now have to wait a year to see where all of this goes.
Castlevania is more than I could have expected, and for a fan of Gothic Horror, I was more than satisfied for such a story with bite (pun intended). I still can’t get over that I got a series for one of my favorite video games, and while the ending was abrupt, it was truly everything that I could have hoped for.