The Children of the Night: Castlevania Season 1 Review
There have been and will continue to be some lengthy discussions about why video game adaptations often fail when brought to a mainstream audience. Most points brought up in these arguments usually branch from the same monumental issue, which is that movie execs and Hollywood execs don’t see an endearing series made successful by developmental integrity and innovation. Instead, they see dollar signs, and as a result, fail to understand the source material from the start when adapting it. With so many game-to-film adaptations, it’s almost as if the filmmakers make integral decisions based on posters and cover art, resulting in most M-rated games, even over-the-top arcade shooters like Doom and zombiefest Resident Evil had to be dark, gritty, and realistic. On the same token, Street Fighter films have been presented all sorts of ways since the JCVD train wreck and never fail to come off as cheesy and lame. This, right off the bat, is where Netflix’s newest Castlevania series has done things correctly.
The animated series follows the plight of Trevor Belmont (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), the last son of the Belmont bloodline who has been disgraced and excommunicated from the church of Wallachia, as he reluctantly leads the fight against Dracula and his vicious armies that ravage the land. Despite being animated and based on what was once one of gaming’s goofiest franchises, the first thing Castlevania does in laying the groundwork for its story is demonstrate that the story is going to be much more than simply Trevor storming the castle and killing everything in sight. In fact, Trevor doesn’t appear until the very end of the first episode and doesn’t become particularly likable until episode three. Instead, Vlad Dracula Tepes is painted as a tragic figure whose need to be slain is not as black and white like it is in the source material. A man of science as much as he is a foul creature of the night, his disdain for the people outside his castle never manifests into anything until they burn his wife at the stake and label him the Devil himself.
On the other side of things, we have Trevor Belmont, the world-weary wanderer whose big fluffy winter coat is pulled up to hide his face from the sun and the gazes of onlookers who might judge him. He’s clearly no slouch when it comes to his family’s tradition of demon slaying or even in following the direction of his moral compass, as displayed when he refuses to walk out on the town of Gresit without the peaceful and wise group of speakers in tow, knowing that the townspeople and church members will massacre them otherwise. He is an ideal protagonist and someone that we can get behind because we’re given plenty of indication that he’s doing good things for the right reasons, even if it’s for bad people who are swayed by the Church. The only issue that plagues Trevor in these initial four episodes of the series is that he’s still in his misguided “I’m too cool for this/I’d rather be in bed” character phase. He’s always telling himself that what he's doing isn't worth it, and in some ways, it isn’t, considering that people are usually just disrespectful to him.
The progression of the season focuses mainly on building up Trevor for his eventual encounter with the Prince of Darkness as Dracula is sidelined from the first episode. Trevor’s acclimation to dealing with the people of Wallachia becomes the focus and the events that point him in the direction of Castle Dracula. In the meantime, both Vlad’s tragic love story and Trevor’s equivalent of rock bottom overlap with the antagonistic presence of some true assholes: the Church, and the bishop of Gresit who ordered the execution of Dracula’s beloved wife, Lisa. As the focal point of both Trevor’s anger and Dracula’s wrath, the church’s presence is short-lived as an actual enemy, but their presence as such antagonistic enemies strengthens the relationship between both main characters as well as the backstory involving secondary characters such as the magic-wielding Sypha, and fan favorite Alucard. Overall, the writing and story work incredibly well in this abbreviated season because they maximize the milage of the bishop of Gresit who interacts just enough with each important character to help define them before being promptly removed from the situation before exhausting himself.
Of course, in an animated series, writing and storytelling can only exist on a sound basis of voice work and animation, both of which Castlevania delivers on satisfactorily. The art style is highly influenced by the anime style but without a lot of the standard features of characters in those types of animation and an overall darker color palette befitting the source material. Looking more like Attack on Titan than Pokemon, there’s a surprising amount of subtlety in facial expressions, especially when it comes to capturing the delusions of church members in Gresit. I couldn’t help but notice the clever way the eyes of the bishop were drawn, just so slightly off-center to prevent him from making eye contact when staring down the fourth wall, and highlighting his deceitful nature.
Creatures of Dracula’s armies are as of yet not too commonplace, but it’s clear from the appearance of the cyclops, bat-creatures, and Alucard, the classic designs found in series highlights like Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon are the strongest influences along with the renaissance painting-style cover art. Even if the series were somehow able to incorporate some of the goofier monsters of the series bestiary in the future, such as Frankenstein’s Monster, these four episodes could be taken as a good sign as to how the tone will be kept consistent as well as the quality of the well-choreographed fight scenes. Trevor makes for an impressive warrior to watch in battle, both as a commander as he rises above his dreary persona to lead the people of Gresit to victory over the nightly raid of Dracula’s monsters, and in a one-on-one sword fight against Alucard. One clever bit during their duel involves Trevor trying to gain the upper hand with a wrestling heel’s low blow, only for him to respond, “this isn’t a bar fight, try to have a little class.”
The voice work in the series is also impressive, for the most part. Considering how seriously Castlevania has to take itself and how strong the presentation is otherwise, there’s a very delicate balance that the voice actors need to find when discussing some of the series’ backstory where it’s presented as a serious business. The tragic love of Dracula and Lisa as well as the vile cruelness of the bishop and clergy that actually deliver the best in-character performances, with Graham MacTavish’s anger and pain as Dracula coming through as he mourns his wife and threatens the people of Wallachia with their impending doom. As well, Matt Frewer’s Bishop just being all-around punchable as he talks down to everyone around him, including Trevor, only to beg pathetically for his life later on.
Perhaps the weakest performance, in fact, comes from Richard Armitage himself, though not really through any fault of his own. He certainly captures Trevor’s characterization as a drifter who tries not to care quite well, and the nobility carried inherently in his voice adds to his ability to pull it off. The other major issue with the performances, though this is equally the fault of the writing staff, is the use of profanity among most of the main characters. It just doesn’t seem like the type of setting or dialogue where the use of "shit" and "fuck" are common, except maybe by some of the characters who are explicitly there to act low-class. Everyone else, especially Trevor, just doesn’t seem right when they curse heavily which undermines the serious tone of the show.
It’s impressive that Castlevania has achieved well-rounded first season of television -- establishing characters, producing a steady sense of development, and showing an admirable sense of restraint in developing the main story arc without feeling like a drag -- in approximately a third of the runtime of other series. It takes the previously bare-bones, instruction manual story of Castlevania III and some further development from Symphony of the Night and proves that its foundation is strong enough to survive on that storytelling without even becoming gratuitous in its use of fight scenes or fan service. I can easily see non-Castlevania fans and non-gamers enjoying the series and craving more as soon as it's finished, while fans of the series, much like wrestling fans digging wrestler cameos on GLOW, will be able to milk that little extra without having the rest of the presentation be compromised.