Full disclosure: I’ve been a Castlevania fan since 1993 when I was Simon Belmont killing fish-men in the first Castlevania for the Nintendo.
That note aside, the Castlevania animated series debuted last year to generally high praise, defying a decades long trend of video game cinema titles being unrepentant trash. The series has garnered an 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Comparatively, the second highest rated video game title of all time is this year’s Rampage, with the record high Tomatometer score of 53 percent. It featured solid writing, excellent voice acting from Richard Armitage (The Hobbit) and Graham McTavish (The Hobbit, Preacher), and gorgeous art from the talented Frederator Studios.
The first season, set in the late 15th century in the Romanian region of Wallachia, Castlevania tells the story of Vlad Dracula and vampire hunter Trevor Belmont. After an inquisition burns the big vamp’s wife at the stake, Dracula — furious and insane with grief — vows to scour human life from Wallachia, then the rest of the world. It falls to Trevor, the last of his family of vampire hunters, to stop him.
Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso) and Adrien “Alucard” Tepes (James Callis) — a sorceress and dracula’s estranged son — join Trevor on his merry, demon killing romp. It’s a melodramatic tale but fits perfectly with the series gothic fantasy aesthetic.
The second season expands on the first’s characters while adding new ones to flesh out our antagonist’s organization. We get to see just how Dracula keeps his armies strengthened and organized, as well as the hierarchy of the vampire world.
Castlevania’s highest praises should go to it’s beautiful gothic art. I could spend hours just examining the layout of the titular castle. The vampire world is effectively cold and blue, while human activity is warm and orange. It’s easy to see why vampires like being vampires (immortality, power among other things) but it’s clear they lack and kind of compassion or beauty. Dracula in particular is beautifully drawn and dominates every scene with an almost coffin like silhouette.
Castlevania stories have never been the most poetic, and so the bar isn’t exactly low as much as it is non-existent. That said, the series dialogue aims high, and while not always consistent is at least not offensive. The story touches on a number of themes, including duty to family, religious inquisition and pride, the value and fear of knowledge, and redemption.
Excellent voice acting from a varied cast, with highlights going to Jamie Murray’s femme fatale, Carmilla of Styria. While Armitage is great and brings Trevor Belmont to life, the Graham McTavish owns every scene he’s in. McTavish’s brooding baritone hangs on every word and perfectly complement’s Dracula’s intimidating figure.
Castlevania is also uses its action sequences prudently. Director Sam Deats understands the value of not overwhelming the audience with constant monster killing and allows one or two scenes every few episodes. Also interesting are the ways the action scenes cut frames, a technique that accelerates the pace of a scene and allows more time for particularly striking frames.
While the second season is overall excellent and has earned it’s high praise, there are some flaws that can detract from the experience — in the same way that the better a picture is, the more you’re aware of a blemish.
The season can take it’s time — sometimes too much — like when our heroes spend three episodes hanging out in a library. This works both for and against the miniseries. It provides depth to the story but spends much of its dialogue telling instead of showing these different aspects of its world.
Dialogue can be overly expository, which is understandably difficult to balance when trying to introduce so many concepts and characters over a little less than four hours. It works perfectly for characterization, such as Forgemaster Isaac’s fanatical devotion to Dracula, but less well when explaining concepts like what a Forgemaster is. Deats should trust his audience to understand the subtext beneath what he presents.
Action sequences could have used more tension as later scenes suffer from spectacle creep, a phenomenon that sees increasing size of action and drama over time. In Castlevania it manifests itself as larger monsters and more complex action scenes. This ironically has the inverse effect of reducing tension as later fights lack any kind of danger — Belmont gets his ass kicked in a bar fight in the first episode of the series, but only eight episodes later fights five monsters alone and comes out unscathed.
It also results in several sequences lasting longer than necessary. The season’s best action scenes are short, one-two-punches that emphasize character acrobatics, skill and resourcefulness over brute strength and endurance.
Ultimately, Castlevania still suffers from some tonal dissonance largely due to Warren Ellises’ writing. Blending short, humorous dialogue with the overall gothic bleakness of the setting is a challenge, and one that needs to be handled carefully. Sarcastic quips like “just what I need” or “really?!” seem out of place next to Alucard’s “[mother] hated that name. She hated the idea that I would define myself through you.”
Despite the flaws listed above, Castlevania remains an extremely entertaining, gothic tale of duty, sacrifice and redemption — whether it’s Trevor trying to clear his family name, Alucard looking to right the wrongs his father has unleashed on the world or Sypha unearthing the good buried in the conflicted protagonists. While the writing can be rough at times, the lines that count are brought home by compelling actors that breathe life into paper characters.
I was initially worried it would try too hard to appeal to fans, it manages to tell an engaging story without leaning too hard on the game’s lore. The series incorporates components of its source material but doesn’t let that material define it. Castlevania fans will see small and large nods in the form of monsters or easter-eggs, but newcomers to the mythos won’t feel left out.
Netflix has greenlit a third season, hopefully with a few more episodes that will allow Deats the visual leeway he needs to show us his next story instead of telling it to us.
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