Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // All images courtesy of Netflix
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow was the first T-rated game I ever owned, forever ramming the series into my heart like a stake. Being blessed with the misfortune of parents who understood and enforced the rating system, convincing said parents that my feeble child brain could handle a T-rated game felt like a major victory. I spent countless hours exploring every glorious, gothic inch of Dracula’s castle, and I still blame many of my aesthetic obsessions on Aria of Sorrow.
Enter Netflix’s Castlevania, a new animated series that would’ve caused my seven-year-old head to explode, but twenty-three-year-old me finds entertaining, intriguing, and flawed.
Calling this first foray into the world of Castlevania a “season” is a bit of a misnomer. With four episodes that clock in at under one hundred minutes total, it feels more like a feature length pilot separated into four bite-sized chunks. This is a definitely a season to binge.
The show seems to adapt Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, with this first season serving as a prequel to the events of the game. The four episodes explain why Dracula (Graham McTavish) is so hellbent on destroying humanity and set Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) on a quest to save the people of Walachia from Dracula’s legion of monsters. Trevor joins forces with a witch, Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and Dracula’s alienated son, Alucard (James Callis), while fighting the cartoonishly corrupt catholic church, led by a mad bishop (Matt Frewer).
Oh, and the entire series is written by comics legend Warren Ellis, of Transmetropolitan fame. And the animation is provided in part by Frederator, the studio behind shows like Adventure Time, Bravest Warriors, and The Fairly OddParents. Needless to say, the show’s got an impressive creative pedigree.
However, neither Ellis nor Frederator appears to have brought their A game to Castlevania, as the writing dips into cliches more often than I’d expect and the animation— with the exception of some stunning combat sequences and lovely backgrounds— isn’t as great as it could be.
Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that Ellis and the animators definitely brought their B+ game. The show might have some subpar writing and flat animation here and there, but it’s always entertaining as pulpy, shlocky action-horror, exactly like the games. Ellis himself calls the series a “Japanese transposition of the Hammer Horror films I grew up with and loved” which is definitely the vibe of this first season. Castlevania might not be great, but it’s good.
Plus it’s metal as all hell, with a surprising amount of blood and gore lending the action sequences a visceral edge. As someone who grew up with the games, I find it’s incredibly satisfying to watch the fluid combat. I always visualized the stiff sword swings and pixelated blood splatters of Aria or Symphony of the Night as epic, gothic showdowns, and nothing Castlevania-related has ever come this close to being as cool as I imagined it was.
The performances also elevate the show above its fairly standard story, as all of the actors breath life into their somewhat cliche characters. Richard Armitage and Alejandra Reynoso deserve special mention here. Armitage’s delivery turns Trevor from standard sardonic anti-hero into a surprisingly hilarious disgraced monster hunter. His humor is dark and dry, and Armitage serves all of his deadpan jokes like one of Dracula’s fine red wines. Reynoso’s Sypha steals every scene she’s in and provides an excellent foil to Trevor’s brooding. McTavish also portrays Dracula with subtlety and restraint, which makes his moments of fury terrifying rather than hammy.
For those of us hardcore nerds out there, rest assured. Castlevania is full of allusions to the games, from the specific animations of sub weapons to the unexpected appearance of a save point. The last member of the main team from Castlevania III, Grant, is also currently MIA, despite Trevor’s party visiting something resembling a clocktower, but I think it’s too early in the show’s life to rule him out. If you don’t know what any of that means, have no fear. You don’t need to be fluent in the games to understand and enjoy Castlevania, though if you are you’ll find plenty of easer eggs that prove the creators are too.
Unfortunately, not everything about Castlevania is praiseworthy, as the show’s treatment of women leaves much to be desired. In these first four episodes, only two women of note are introduced— compared to half a dozen men— and one of the two exists only to die and thereby catalyze Dracula becoming the main villain. Both these women are portrayed as highly capable, so I never found the specific treatment of them problematic, but the absence of other substantial female characters did haunt my thoughts every now and again. I realize this lack of diversity stems from the source material, but it’s still disheartening to see. Hopefully Ellis will take steps to ameliorate this issue as the series moves forward.
Speaking of moving forward, Netflix has already renewed Castlevania for an eight episode second season, which I’ll definitely be bingeing on release day. Hopefully it won’t take an entire year, as we’ve been given barely a taste of things to come. What we have is bloody intriguing though, so I recommend you check it out. It won’t take too long and it’s a great time while it lasts.