Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Episodes 1-4 streaming
By all accounts, it was just a regular weekday at Dracula's castle, until a curious woman from the nearby village turned up looking for answers. Taken by the woman's interest in science and begrudgingly touched by her empathy for humanity, Drac falls in love – so things don't go too great when the craven local clergy, gods in their own mind, burn her at the stake for witchcraft. Vlad gives the townspeople – and the rest of humanity – one measly year before he breaks the lock on the gates of hell and lets his army of demons go hog wild on the countryside for a few rounds of indiscriminate revenge killing.
Who's around to reluctantly save us? A drunken, foul-mouthed wreck named Trevor Belmont, last son of the vampire-hunting Belmont family, excommunicated by the church for daring to fight the dark forces of the night with unholy methods. In the chaos of Dracula's army advancing, Trevor runs into a group of Speakers, benevolent spell-wielding nomads persecuted by the clergy who can't leave the city for safety until they find their missing granddaughter Sypha, who is hunting for a prophesied swordsman legend says will solve their vampire problem for them. Trevor hesitantly agrees to find her – and wouldn't you know it, the two make a great vampire-killing team. Together, they're off to bring down the Count - but not before enlisting the help of his estranged son, Alucard.
I didn't have a particularly compelling reason to keep my expectations high for Netflix's Castlevania adaptation – nobody did, really. I've been in love with Konami's sidescrolling vampire series since it debuted in the 80s and have followed the franchise with religious devotion since then – Symphony of the Night remains my all-time favorite videogame of any kind - and even I knew better than to expect something billed as “a Castlevania anime” to be any good. Videogame movies have a well-deserved reputation for being ruinously unfaithful to their source material in both story and spirit, compromised by the urgent need to reach a broader audience than just the nerds hoping for a pitch-perfect rendering of their pixelated fantasies. Videogame anime doesn't tend to fare much better – a quick journey through the list of stinkburger videogame OVAs like Tekken, Panzer Dragoon and Battle Arena Toshinden will tell you what you're in for. So it may have helped that I stowed my teenage dreams of a Castlevania anime that somehow looked like Ayami Kojima's dreamlike illustrations in motion and buckled up for whatever Warren Ellis, the guy who wrote Transmetropolitan, thought would make a cool vampire cartoon.
"There was never, ever going to be an animated Castlevania that looked like this", I say, wisely, to my 16-year old self.
Ellis’ name in the credits isn't the only reason it's misleading to call this “a Castlevania anime” – it isn't really anime at all, having virtually no Japanese creative staff to speak of. While it draws from a very distinctive legacy of horror anime design, pulls a lot from Ayami Kojima's paintings and obviously has designs on being considered “the Castlevania anime”, it has a lot more in common with Warner Bros’ often-clunky attempts at straight-to-video animation for adults, like Justice League Dark or The Killing Joke. Thankfully, it turned out better than most of those productions do; for whatever its shortcomings, and it has at least a few, Netflix's Castlevania manages to be both a remarkably faithful, fun adaptation of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and a rollicking homage to the hard-edged, foul-mouthed anime OVAs of the 80s and 90s.
It feels like Ellis’ screenplay is largely responsible for this thing turning out OK; it's a pretty straightforward retelling of the prequel story laid out in crude cutscenes back on the NES in 1989, with some flavor from Symphony of the Night for good measure. According to Ellis, these first four episodes are composed mostly from a script he wrote on commission back in 2007, a script Netflix loved and Konami had already signed off on, so largely that's what we're getting here, and it works. He leans too hard on quippy Whedonesque banter and 90s edgelord swearing, but in spite of all that (and in some cases, because of it) he totally sells Dracula's torment over his murdered wife, Trevor Belmont's detached drunken swagger and even Alucard's princely vengeance. Belmont in particular is a standout – Ellis imbues him with an authentic bedraggled Han Solo charm that Richard Armitage reliably embodies (he was the sexy dwarf in those terrible Hobbit movies). The real villains of Castlevania are the corrupt clergy, and Ellis hammers that point convincingly – everyone clashes with the church, and it's written well enough to make you root for Dracula's demonic army to come to eat their faces. I didn't think I'd care too much about the story, but that wound up being the chief reason I want more of this show. The adaptation is good, and if you can choke down some quipping and have a soft spot for 90s anime dubs where every third word is an F-bomb, you're in for a great time.
Production-wise, well, it's not like they gave Yoshiaki Kawajiri 40 million dollars and 4 years of Production I.G's valuable time to make this; it's a team of animators from the combined forces of Frederator and Powerhouse Animation Studios (along with a mountain of backup from an overseas crew of Korean and Chinese animators) working overtime. To my eyes, the animation looked at least a bit better than what I was used to seeing in comparable productions from DC Comics – this looks way, way better than The Killing Joke did, for example. There are still more than a couple of awkward action sequences, questionably-drawn gore, scenes where it felt like maybe the storyboards were too ambitious and the production crew couldn't keep up with the vision. Crude-looking still frames are held for too long in some cases, but these are compromises you'll find in virtually every bit of mass-market straight-to-video American animation. I thought the shot composition and art direction in particular saved a lot of the crummier shots from being fatal. Good direction and good art direction can make up for a lot, and even though the animation is far from flawless, the total package still evokes the mood it's going for and does the job it's trying to do. There's real strength in the design here – I thought they did an admirable job adapting these character designs, particularly Alucard's. It can't have been easy to try and turn Kojima's intricate goth acryllics into bodies that can move and emote; their version not only looks the part and maintains his distinctive facial structure, they even took a valiant stab at replicating his balletic combat style from the game. It doesn't look perfect or anything, but you can tell they dumped a lot of effort into some of his scenes and they're better for it.
This could've turned out real bad - Alucard could've looked like just another knockoff Sephiroth, but they captured Kojima's aristocratic design, and that can't have been easy.
Also worth mentioning is the outstanding voice cast. Aside from the aforementioned Armitage – who really sells his lines, there isn't a single bad read in here from him – Alucard is played by Gaius Baltar himself, James Callis, who knocks it out of the park. There's a raspy, dramatic European weight to their voices, their accents authentic, elevating Ellis’ sometimes silly dialogue beyond what it might've been in the hands of less capable actors. I'm usually 100% allergic to stagey, glib postmodern quipping; this thing opens with Dracula doing that shit and I was fine with it because Graham McTavish eats his dialogue alive and makes Dracula sound at once worldly and feral, aristocratic and satanic. It's great work. Everyone casting for European accents should take notes.
If there's one place this adaptation falls down, it's the score. Now, for all of Trevor Belmont's wacky quips about things getting “snake-fuckingly crazy” and “God shitting in his dinner”, this is a serious adaptation that takes itself so seriously it refuses to give you any of the fanservice you might be expecting. As much as you might desperately need a scene where Trevor Belmont unleashes a thundering CRACK with his whip across a moldering brick wall in Dracula's haunted castle, revealing a glistening, fully-cooked Thanksgiving turkey in a secret enclave, it never happens. Dracula never asks What A Man Is, hearts don't come flying out of wall sconces, and there isn't a single instance of the Castlevania theme, Vampire Killer, Bloody Tears, or any other recognizable Castlevania music anywhere to be found in this thing. The score is mostly just incidental strings, some forgettable dramatic orchestral stuff. I understand the desire to stay far away from distracting jokey fanservice when you're trying to immerse your audience in the world and its characters and you want people to take your story seriously. Frankly, as much as I'd have loved it, I'm glad there's no turkey scene – but no Vampire Killer just feels cruel. There are plenty of slow, dramatic arrangements of those songs that would've fit beautifully over parts of this show; it's a missed opportunity.
If Castlevania has one other major shortcoming, it's the length – this is only 4 25-minute episodes long, and Ellis keeps it going at a cracking pace. You're nowhere near anything approaching a climax by the end of these four episodes. It's just the first act of the story - Trevor Belmont gets his Dracula-slaying band together, and that's it. The original screenplay was the first part of a planned trilogy, and that's clearly what this is – Netflix has already greenlit the 8 concluding episodes, but it's odd that these were billed as “season one” when there isn't remotely a season's worth of storyline in here and now we have to wait a good while for the rest of it. If I think about it, though, that's a pretty good problem to have – instead of dreading the rest of the crummy low-rent Castlevania anime we got, I'm excited to see more of this compelling, well-written adaptation that breathes real life and vigor into characters I've known my whole life. It's far from a flawless production, but it's entertaining, competently made and satisfying in most all the ways it needed to be. I can't wait to see more.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : A-
Music : C
+ Surprisingly solid adaptation of a classic game with compelling characters and an outstanding voice cast
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