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Castlevania – TV Series Review

Castlevania (cover)You know, when I first heard that Netflix was doing a four-episode animated Castlevania TV series, I have to admit, I wasn’t really all that interested. I mean, let’s face it, video game adaptations don’t exactly have a great reputation these days. And, even without having actually played the games, I could tell that a dark fantasy like Castlevania would be damn difficult to adapt in an entertaining way. Okay, sure, the trailer looked great, the animation was nice and famed comic writer Warren Ellis was attached to the script, but would the final product really be up to scratch?

Well, I’m here to tell you that the answer is yes, very much so. Netflix’s Castlevania is a fantastic watch, regardless of whether you’ve played the games or not.

The series, in case you’re unfamiliar, revolves around the actions of Vlad Tepes Dracula, a powerful vampire whose wife is burnt at the stake by a corrupt church. In his vengeance-filled grief, Dracula summons an army of demons to lay waste to the country of Wallachia and slaughter all who dwell there. Caught in the middle of this is Trevor Belmont, voiced with Han Solo-esque charm by Richard Armitage, a down-on-his-luck monster hunter from a prestigious but disgraced family line, who ends up in a city under siege from Dracula’s monsters.

The first thing I will say about this series though is that it is dark. Very very dark. And I mean that in terms of content, not lighting. This is not some cheerful kids cartoon, this series is brutal as all hell. In the very first episode, you see people violently ripped in half, disembowled and killed in gratuitously gory ways. Dracula’s rampage itself begins with blood and stillborn demon foetuses raining from the sky. Admittedly, it becomes a bit tamer after the first couple of episodes, but still it’s easy to almost see this as a throwback to the sorts of ultraviolent anime OVAs from the 80s and 90s.

Castlevania (screenshot 1)

Fortunately, gratuitous gore isn’t the sole thing Castlevania has going for it and I was glad to find both a strong emotional undercurrent beneath the series, as well some very charismatic and likeable characters. I mentioned Trevor Belmont having Han Solo-esque charm and I think that’s a very good comparison. Trevor is a bit of an asshole, but he’s fun to watch and you know he has a good heart underneath. And that deserves a lot of credit to both Ellis’s writing and Armitage’s performance. Together they managed to gift the character with that perfect mix of down-on-his-luck roguishness and likeable charisma and create a fantastic lead with it. The supporting cast is fairly strong as well, the occasional dodgy accent aside.

Castlevania - DraculaAs for Dracula himself, well, he only really appears in the first episode (since the series is acting more as a prologue for the 2nd season than a complete story in itself) but damned if he doesn’t make a good impression. His relationship with his wife, Lisa, is only covered in a couple of scenes, but they have such good chemistry and work together so well that his sheer fury and grief after her rather brutal death is both understandable and downright heart-breaking. I’ve always thought that some of the greatest antagonists are the ones who are genuinely sympathetic to the audience and that’s this Dracula to a tee. You entirely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, even with all the death and destruction that it causes.

Unfortunately, while Dracula may be a fantastic and nuanced antagonist, I can’t quite say the same for the other main villain of the series, specifically the Church. Now, I’m not Christian myself and I recognise that the medieval Church did a lot of terrible terrible things in the past. And in some ways, this series can be considered a somewhat accurate depiction of some of that. But when almost every single priest character is portrayed as a cartoonishly evil bad guy and almost every problem in the series, from Dracula’s rampage to the Belmont’s disgrace, is the Church’s fault, it really does end up feeling a bit much. Considering how they did such a good job making Dracula such a sympathetic and well-rounded villain, did they really have to resort to cartoonish stereotypes for the Church instead?

The other issue I have with the series is that the score is a bit…meh. It’s not distractingly bad, mind, it’s just sort of there. Unmemorable and uninteresting. Like I said, I’ve not played any of the Castlevania games, but I have listened to some of the soundtracks and there is some great music there that really would’ve felt appropriate and could’ve elevated some of the actions to even higher than they were. Still, I suppose, ultimately, it’s a bit of a minor quibble.

Castlevania - characters

Speaking of the action, though, it’s a lot of fun. The series was animated by Frederator and Powerhouse Animation Studios and they I’d say they do an excellent job all round (minus a few quibbles here and there) they do an especially nice job with the fight scenes. From the slow, bumbling bar brawl in Episode 2, to the polished, exciting action of Episode 4, each fits the mood perfect and are a lot of fun to watch.

Ultimately, I have to admit I was very pleasantly surprised by Castlevania. I was expecting to either be lost, bored or just plain irritated, but instead I got a fantastic dark fantasy tale with strong characters, excellent animation and a story that makes me very interested in what comes next (especially as the series leaves things very open in the last episodes). Hopefully, they’ll be able to recapture the magic with the next eight-episode second season that has already been announced. And hopefully, I won’t have wait too long for it.


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