If July 7th, 2017 gave me anything, it was hope. Hope, anticipation, and rejuvenated optimism for some rather beloved IP’s that really needed a whip-in-the spandex right about now.
Right off the web was the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s reboot of Spider-man, which was consistently entertaining and arguably the best entry to date for the live-action film series. Coming out of the theater for Spider-man: Homecoming kind of felt like watching your kid sister graduate, where you start thinking “Ya done good, kid. Now show me what else you got”.
But I’m not here to talk about Spider-man. That is because it just so happens that another deeply-regarded property, coveted by the hearts of many a gaming fan (myself included) received it’s own re-imagining the very same day, in the form of a Netflix-Original television series.
I speak of, of course, Adi Shankar’s much-anticipated Castlevania animated series, which axed it’s way to Netflix this past Friday.
What’s the deal with Castlevania?
Many in their late-20s-to-early-40s will likely remember Konami’s Castlevania as one-among-many brutally difficult action-platformers back on the old Nintendo in the 80s and 90s. Following the Belmont clan’s generation-spanning conflict with the demonic Dracula, Castlevania’s unique breed of Gothic-horror earned it a nifty spot among the paragons of gaming. Perhaps it’s most universally-adored entry, Symphony of the Night on the original Playstation in 1997, established the series as the other-half to the whole that laid the foundation for the popular ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genre.
Regardless of your experience with the series, it can’t be denied that recent history has not found it much favor. It’s full-3D entries are unplayable at worst and corny -fun at best, and the attempt at a westernized reboot with the Lords of Shadow series went about as well as The Amazing Spider-man did for its own series; the first one was a good-enough, financially successful romp that paved a way for a disastrous sequel that sucked more Belmont blood than Count Dracula himself. It has been over three years since Lords of Shadow 2, and good ol’ ‘husk-of-its-former-self’ Konami hardly even acknowledged, much less celebrated, the series’s 30th anniversary (this is starting to sound all too familiar). With all this in mind, it feels as though the Castlevania will remain entrapped by the bowels of hell (Konami), leaving it’s future uncertain.
That is, on the gaming front.
Leave it to the ever-illustrious alpha-geek Adi Shankar (producer of Dredd, The Grey, and Power/Rangers among others) to bring Castlevania back into the holy torchlight in the most unexpected of ways. Imbuing the substance of his gritty, R-Rated remakes (official or otherwise) of existing properties with the talents of legendary comic-writer Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Astonishing X-Men) and bringing in veteran animators from Studio Federator, the team promised to deliver upon an ultra-violent, anime-inspired take on the classic (albeit simplistic) story of Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse.
It was hard to not get whipped up into the frenzy of excitement of such a prospect, and it was similarly difficult to not be concerned about how the project would turn out. Videogame adaptations on the screen, large of small, have been historically abysmal in the western market. Konami’s general apathy for it’s most beloved IP certainly wouldn’t help things creatively. On top of that, there isn’t a major game release for the show to capitalize from, or to buffer a potentially negative reception. The series was to stand on its own and take on the burden of being that videogame adaptation; the one that breaks the curse and be worthy of the title it has pillaged.
So how does Castlevania’s first season on Netflix run such a monstrous gauntlet set before it?
To be honest…it takes quit the savage beating, but it emerges standing on its own two legs by the end.
Castlevania jumps right into 15th century Wallachia (the historical residence of the real-life Vlad The Impaler), where Vlad “Dracula” Tepes the vampire (Graham McTavish) wallows within his wandering fortress, apathetic to the livelihoods of mankind. Classic Dracula.
That is, until a curiously courageous young woman by the name of Lisa (Emily Swallow) pays a visit to said foreboding fortress in search of scientific medical research and how that intersects with Dracula’s infamous sorcery. Unperturbed by Dracula’s threatening demeanor, she offers to restore his connection with mankind in exchange for the advanced scientific research he possesses. Dracula becomes quite enamored with Lisa’s ambition, enough so that he concedes to her wishes.
An obligatory “I think I’m going to like you” type of line and one crossfade later, two decades have come and gone. Lisa has been sentenced to burning at the stake for witchcraft as arranged by a rather conniving-yet-devout Bishop (Matt Frewer). Dracula, having been robbed of what he believed to be the only person worth saving humanity for, essentially begins his murderous rampage after the humans do not heed his warnings. Cut to one year later, and Wallachia has already become a medieval-dystopian landscape, wherein creatures of the night regularly raid cities and villages indiscriminately tearing people to ribbons. As you can imagine, next-to-all hope goes to hell.
Enter Trevor Belmont, the last surviving member of the excommunicated Belmont clan. In this interpretation a sarcastic drunkard with a slightly cold-shoulder for those in need, Trevor (Richard Armitage) finds himself reluctantly providing his whip-cracking skills (and personality) to the town of Gresit, which supposedly houses a legendary warrior within it’s catacombs, destined to slay Dracula.
Based purely upon that synopsis, you’d think Castlevania is almost painfully cliche. And, well, you’d be right about that. It’s difficult to pinpoint something that the show doesn’t suck from another story’s neck. There’s some obvious riffs on the ever-reliable Hero’s Journey arc, passing references to familial conflict a-la Game of Thrones, and hardly a fresh idea to plant within the grounds of dark-fantasy television.
Trite as it all is, it’s not as though these things aren’t well-executed. The opening scene between Lisa and Dracula, though fleeting, establishes pretty much everything we need to understand Dracula’s motivation and demeanor at this point in time. Providing more humanization and context for his relationship with humanity, Lisa, and his son Alucard will most certainly be necessary in future seasons, but it works within these four microscopic episodes. From there, it’s serviceable and satisfying, even if it’s not particularly good.
What’s most egregious about the story is actually how it’s presented. At less than 100 minutes (hell, maybe even 90 if you cut out the credits sequence in each episode), it feels less like a “first season” and more like a standalone, feature-length pilot. While each episode has a relatively clear beginning, middle, and end, each individual arc is hardly a gratifying watch unless you take in the entire show as a single, standalone film. The issue that arises with that, however, is that the show has clearly been edited and rewritten to accommodate for an episodic format, just not particularly well. Castlevania doesn’t begin or end much like a film, despite it’s length almost perfectly fitting for it to do so. It’s a bit of a nitpick, but it does make the set-up feel far less meaty than it really should have.
I’ve bore witness to a wide range of reactions to Castlevania’s animation quality, and it seems quite mixed. I feel fortunate enough to fall into a more positive camp, but hold concerns and complaints not dissimilar to its naysayers.
It’s moot to describe how blatantly anime-influenced Castlevania is in general, and the TV series displays this more proudly than ever with it’s art direction. The show is splashed with a surprisingly versatile pallet, even if it’s standout colors are overwhelmingly mungy and bloodstained. It’s not an unwelcome style, especially taking into account the nature of it’s namesake. I can understand a desire for a bit more flare and variety, but it still drips so much delicious, Castlevania-falvored blood. This is also reflected in the character designs (particularly Dracula and Alucard) and backgrounds, which wouldn’t look out of place in a mainline 2D entry to the series.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the monster variety. Castlevania’s demons, on their own, look menacing enough, but there simply isn’t enough of them to sustain an ever-expanding lore. It doesn’t so much become an issue in Season 1 until you get close to the climax, but it left me deeply concerned for what Season 2 has to offer. If we’re lucky, it’ll be more than this.
The animation quality itself, in my opinion, is quite good. Taking on the “anime style” should never be an excuse to make a show look stiff and cheap, but that can typically come with the nature of the medium. Castlevania has enough (surprisingly) expressive characters and sublime, memorable action set-pieces to offset those awkward moments when it starts to look like a glorified flash animation. The action is almost never confusing or aimless, thanks in part to some solid direction from Sam Deats and the team of animators at their disposal. On top of that, the season’s “final battle” is bar-none one of the greatest animated fight-scenes on television, which alone almost makes the entire series worth watching.
Despite falling on the more positive spectrum in regard to the show’s aesthetics, It’s beyond a shame that Castlevania’s score by Trevor Morris isn’t up to snuff, considering the pedigree of the franchise’s musical scores in past years. It’s solidly implemented moody for sure, but nary a memorable note comes off, even during emotional crescendos. Much of the games’ iconic and catchy theme tunes appear all but missing, a puzzling omission to an otherwise faithful (at least in direction) adaptation. Assuming this isn’t some impassable issue of rights and licencing, I’d hope Season 2 takes heed of this and remasters plenty of iconic music to get the fans’ hearts aflutter.
Castlevania has always been a little mature, violent or horror-ridden throughout it’s 30+ year history, but Netflix elevates that to a delightfully R-Rated level. While some of the gore is even more jarring than I expected, it’s never tonally inconsistent. The humor is sardonic and profanity-laden enough to not been in-congruent with the near-hopeless tone laid before us. For instance, a conversation about having sex with goats quickly devolves into a bar fight with a drunken Trevor. The best thing about this scene is when Richard Armitage says “Please leave my testicles alone.” I guess that’s Warren Ellis for you.
The show also has some fun references to videogame tropes in general. There’s a sequence that feel akin to wandering around a town mingling with NPCs, some precarious platforming segments and even thrilling boss fights (one of which even as a weak-point). Seamlessly implemented within it’s structure, it’s easy to see where Castlevania comes from without feeling at all too ludicrous for its own sake.
For all the fun elements it has, Castlevania really isn’t unlike anything we haven’t seen before both in terms of narrative and world-building. The series’ lore felt a bit more rife for originality and unique approaches to already-established tropes, but instead we just kind of get the same-old dark fantasy fare that we’ve had tenfold times over.
But for that Castlevania’s world lacks in originality, it just about makes up for with its inhabitants. Trevor Belmont is one of the most likable, entertaining protagonists in a videogame adaptation, even if he’s basically just Richard Armitage bellowing like drunken Guy of Gisborne. I also found Matt Frewer’s take on his zealous-Bishop character genuinely unnerving at times.
While the story’s actual content does little to humanize Dracula outside of the first act, something about Graham McTavish’s cadence, even when he’s being menacing, brings about a sympathy in the character. Magic-Warrior-Monk Sypha Belnades (one of the playable characters in Dracula’s Curse), honestly isn’t all that interesting, but her interactions with Trevor were…actually kind of fun? They played off each other so well, I was taken aback with how much I enjoyed watching them interact.
It’s hard for me to bounce off the walls in praise for the characterization in general, but I find it equally difficult to find anything glaringly “wrong” just yet, due to the first season’s short nature.
It’s no shock that video-game adaptations to film or TV are risky business, and this is no more typified than the very nature of the transition. Taking away a game’s defining feature, the interactivity, leaves you with comparatively little, even in the most story-rich experiences. The result are movies that are compete and utter betrayals of their source material, or even movies that are far too faithful for their own good (Warcraft). In between, you have these competently-made, stolid and boring pieces of mediocrity that do nothing but strip away the game’s interactivity, leaving you with whatever was left (Assassin’s Creed and Ratchet and Clank).
And yet, within the context of other videogame adaptations, Castlevania stands out not necessarily for it’s quality, but overcoming the nature of it’s existence.
Castlevania is an immensely flawed show, of that I cannot deny. So much so in fact, I wouldn’t argue were you to think it was even a bad one, or at least quite disappointing. From it’s mixed bag of animation, predictability and weak world-building, it has one-two-many annoying aspects to be truly great, I feel.
It’s flaws however, are not as inherent as other video game adaptations. It’s not perfect, but it stays true to Castlevania without being hung up on more troubling elements. It takes liberties that are not totally in-congruent with the games and references the feel of the NES-era titles in fun, unobtrusive ways.
It’s probably the first cinematic video-game adaptation I’ve ever seen that is completely unfettered by the fact that it’s based on a game. For everything I find disappointing, annoying, or difficult to stomach, it at least praise for that.
So if you have any care in the world for Castlevania as a franchise or are at all interested in another dark-gothic gore-fest in an anime style, give the new show on Netflix a shot. I can’t guarantee you’ll have a good time, but it’ll be a healthy reminder that they’re on the right track with this one.