Whether animated or live-action, Hollywood has a stunningly poor track record when it comes to adapting popular video game franchises to film and television. Even last year’s Assassin’s Creed, which seemed like the perfect storm of director, actors and source material, became just another in a long line of duds. Yet every once in a while, you have something like Castlevania come along to remind us that this genre isn’t inherently doomed.
Based on the long-running series of supernatural action games, Castlevania features all the tropes one would expect. Vlad Dracula Tepes (voiced by Preacher and Outlander’s Graham McTavish) has returned and unleashed a horde of demonic monsters against the peasants and clergymen of 15th Century Wallachia, and only a ragtag band of monster hunters that includes disgraced nobleman Trevor Belmont (The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage), magician/scholar Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso) and Dracula’s half-breed son Alucard (Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis) have the power to restore peace to the land. While the series offers its own take on the Castlevania mythos, it draws most heavily from 1990’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
The Castlevania games are more about atmosphere and exploration than plot, and as such this isn’t really the first franchise I’d think of when it comes to breaking the video game adaptation losing streak. So why does Castlevania succeed? A lot of it has to do with simply putting the right people in charge. Executive producer/showrunner Adi Shankar has sort of built a second career out of crafting unauthorized, adult-oriented reboots of popular franchises, including 2012’s Punisher: Dirty Laundry and 2015’s Power/Rangers. If you want to craft an R-rated overhaul of a popular video game franchise while still retaining the core appeal of that franchise, Shankar is pretty much the guy to call.
Then there’s writer Warren Ellis, a man known for blending high-concept science fiction and black, nihilistic humour in his stories. Ellis is primarily known for his comic book work (The Authority, Planetary, Transmetropolitan) but he also wrote 2009’s G.I. Joe: Resolute for Adult Swim. That series isn’t so different from Castlevania in many ways, and both prove that it’s possible to take goofy ’80s fare and give it a dark, thoughtful makeover without losing the fun in the process.
Castlevania immediately starts off on the right foot by focusing not on the Belmont family, but Dracula himself. The series opens with a fateful encounter between the reclusive vampire king and an aspiring scientist named Lisa (The Mentalist’s Emily Swallow). That opening scene nicely sets the tone for the series, establishing Dracula’s tenuous connection to the human world and giving him real motivations for menacing the land of Wallachia. While Dracula has little overt presence in the series after the first episode, it’s satisfying to see Ellis treat his main villain with depth and nuance. Dracula has at least a shred of tragedy about him in any incarnation, but that angle is really played up here.
In addition to casting Dracula as a sympathetic villain, the early scenes help establish the general themes that dominate all four episodes. This is as much a story about the clash between fear and reason as it is man and monster. Both Dracula and those charged with hunting him are forced to choose whether they believe humanity can rise above Dark Age superstitions. Trevor is the last-surviving son of a disgraced family, one who’s sorely tempted to simply sit back and let those who wronged his family suffer their just fate. And Alucard, naturally, is torn between his family heritage and his human side. There’s a welcome depth to both sides, with none of the main characters but the squeaky-clean Sypha really falling into the good or evil camps.
I only wish the same were true for the various clergy characters. The Church is pretty uniformly sinister force in this series. With Dracula serving mostly as a background figure at this stage in the series, a character known only as “The Bishop” (Max Headroom’s Matt Frewer) emerges as the main antagonist in these four episodes. The Bishop is pretty much your typical medieval priest villain, one prone to burning his enemies at the stake and generally abusing his lofty position for personal gain. Other than a vague desire to use Dracula’s attack to consolidate his own religious power, The Bishop’s motivations never really coalesce. Compared to the rest of the main cast, he’s annoyingly one-dimensional.
Clearly, Netflix spared no expense when it came to the voice cast, forgoing the familiar names in the voice acting world in favour of some surprisingly big-name actors. For the most part, the actors do justice to their characters. McTavish and Callis particularly stand out as they channel the pathos and suffering of their undead characters. There are times when the actors (Armitage especially) speak too softly and become almost drowned out by the music and sound effects, but at least there’s a passion to these performances that you don’t always find in projects like this.
Amid all the character drama and clashing between science and superstition, Castlevania never loses sight of the more visceral appeal of the series. There’s plenty of action to go around, even if these four episodes barely dip their toes into the giant menagerie of monsters from the games. A joint effort between Frederator Studios and Powerhouse Animation Studios, Castlevania has a slick look and feel that really stands out when the action heats up. The series does an admirable job of translating the lush character designs of artist Ayami Kojima, particularly in terms of the graceful, almost feminine qualities of Dracula and his son. This series may draw mainly from Castlevania III in terms of plot, but it’s far more influenced by games like Symphony of the Night when it comes to art style.
Ellis’ sardonic wit is also apparent in many spots. That’s especially true whenever the wisecracking, alcoholic Trevor comes into conflict with the ordinary villagers of Wallachia. The second episode, “Necropolis,” feels the most Ellis-y as Trevor gets into drunken brawls and the humour leans towards bestiality and the convoluted genealogies of country peasants. It is a little jarring to hear the occasional F-bomb being tossed about, only because the series is so sporadic and inconsistent about its use of adult language. Still, it’s nice to see an animated series embrace its adults-only trappings.
Castlevania isn’t a flawless adaptation by any means, but it’s far better than any fan had a right to expect given the way these things usually play out. Honestly, the series’ biggest flaw is that there’s so little of it. Four 25-minute episodes is a pretty measly way to kick off a new series. Shankar and Ellis have room to do little more than arrange the basic pieces on the board before the season ends. It plays less like a complete, cohesive season than simply Act 1 of an ongoing adventure.
Given Netflix’s increasingly conservative stance on renewing original series, it may be that the company simply didn’t want to commit to more than four episodes of an expensive animated project in one sitting. The good news is that the series has already been renewed for a second season of eight episodes. But was it really so much to ask to get all 12 episodes in one big meal? Luckily Season Two was much better, with a slightly better 8 episode run. Look out for my review of that dropping soon.
Castlevania is a welcome reminder that video games actually can make for compelling TV when the right people are put in charge. Adi Shankar and Warren Ellis were clearly the right men for this assignment, as they blend the action and atmosphere of the games with a compelling conflict built around the clash between superstition and reason. When a show’s worst problem is that there’s simply not enough of it, you know it’s doing something right.
Final Score: Excellent! (8.7/10)
If you want to check out my Castlevania Season 2 review, you can read it here!
Seems to keep on forgetting to add this little box