‘Castlevania’ Review: Netflix’s Video Game Adaptation Has Some Serious Bite

     July 8, 2017

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When we had a chance to talk to Castlevania producer Adi Shankar, he promised us a super-violent, R-rated, anime-inspired series that was going to be the best video game adaptation made to date. Now that the four-episode first season of the show is available on Netflix, it’s clear that Shankar has made good on that promise. Castlevania not only brings the fan-favorite characters of the long-running Konami series to life, it fleshes them out by embroiling them in a conflict over belief, blood, and magic, all set in 15th century Wallachia.

The first four episodes that comprise Season 1 are a fantastic introduction to this take on the world of Castlevania and they serve quite well in getting the bloody band of monster-killers together. Sufficient time is carved out for Dracula (Graham McTavish), Trevor Bellmont (Richard Armitage), Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and even Alucard (James Callis) to make their proper introductions to the audience. (Sorry, no Grant Danasty sightings just yet, but take a moment just to appreciate that fantastic voice cast!) While this is a solid start to the series, it’s also too short and leaves fans wanting to see much more in the future. The good news is that Netflix has officially ordered a second season and has increased the episode order to eight; no release date has been announced just yet. Keep an eye out for more on Castlevania including interviews with producer Fred Seibert of Frederator and animator/director Sam Deats from Powerhouse Animation as part of my coverage from RTX 2017.

castlevania-review

Image Courtesy of Frederator Networks

If you need a little more convincing in order to check out Castlevania, here’s what you can expect:

Warren Ellis‘ script makes some strong decisions in Castlevania and the series is all the better for it. Rather than a straight-up action-adventure adaptation that lacks personality or controversial message, this story pulls no punches when it comes to the danger posed by religious zealots and their demonization of both science and magic. That very clear divide is established right out of the gate in the series’ first episode, “Witchbottle.” This mesmerizing first look at Castlevania centers on Lisa (Emily Swallow), a courageous and good-hearted woman who seeks higher knowledge in order to care for the ailing people of Wallachia. The reveal of the keeper of this knowledge is surprising: Dracula himself. The cinematic history of Dracula tells us that any innocent maid foolish or unlucky enough to venture into Dracula’s castle will likely not make it out alive. Castlevania, however, flips this convention and follows the video game’s story which sees the unlikely pair getting married.

However, the local bishop (Matt Frewer) deems this an unholy alliance. And when word of Lisa’s healing abilities reaches his ears, he takes drastic measures to purge this perceived witchcraft from Targoviste. This is the inciting moment that causes the hellfire of Dracula’s rage to rain down upon the city and its people, eventually spreading throughout the whole of Wallachia until all humankind has been exterminated. The writing is such that you’ll be pulling for Vlad Tepes … for about 20 minutes. His unhinged and unflinching plan to exterminate humanity kind of puts a ding in his otherwise understandable thirst for vengeance.

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Image via Netflix

Enter Trevor Belmont, the last remaining member of the once-noble but now infamous and exiled Belmont family whose monster-killing prowess has earned them scorn from the religious rulers due to the belief that they too practiced dark magic. Trevor, for his part, is content to wander about Wallachia drinking ale and eating bits of dried goat as well as finding himself in the occasional fight. When he happens upon the beleaguered town of Gresit, he’s forced to make a choice: Aid the enclave of Speakers–a group of healers and magicians tasked with aiding the ailing townsfolk–or leave them to the mercy of both Dracula’s encroaching horde and the torch-wielding rabble roused by the religious elite. It’s here that Trevor’s heroic nature–and his whip-wielding and sword-slashing skills–will be put to the test.

Gresit is also the place that the Castlevania game’s protagonists come together. Audiences are soon introduced to both Sypha and Alucard in fantastic ways that show off their personalities and unique designs as well as their particular abilities. Trevor gets the lion’s share of the spotlight, but the chemistry among the three leads is an incredibly rich storytelling area to mine and I can’t wait to see more of their adventures in Season 2. Regardless of their impressive skills (Trevor’s fight sequences are incredible to watch, as are Sypha’s magic-wielding combat and Alucard’s fluid finesse), Dracula is introduced early on as a very imposing force; teleporting castles, massive columns of fire, and the ability to summon a hellish army of flying, baby-eating, fireball-spitting, and eviscerating goblins are just a hint of what the dark lord is capable of. The trio will need to call upon all of their skills if they hope to take him out.

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Image via Netflix

Castlevania is a supremely satisfying video game adaptation that pulls no punches and is not for the faint of heart. Pulling inspiration from such violent and graphic anime stories as Ninja Scroll and Akira, this definitely isn’t kid friendly. And yet the violence and gore serves the story, one that’s not about a simple action-packed adventure of a trio of heroes wandering the Wallachian countryside, but the very real battle of complex heroes fighting for what’s right and protecting the innocent from darkness, death, and ignorance. The only downsides to the series are the occasional bit of wonky animation, some strange music choices (the soundtrack overall is delightfully Gothic and spooky), and some pacing issues, but these are minor quibbles. Season 1 was a great introduction and Season 2 can’t get here soon enough.

Rating: ★★★★ Very good

Television