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Finally, I can breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve watched my beloved video game series fall victim to Hollywood’s kiss of death countless times, but no longer!
. . . Alright, there’s no way that Netflix’s CASTLEVANIA is going to put the final nail in the coffin of absolutely god-awful video game movies, but it’s so encouraging to see a solid take on a deserving franchise. Despite its basically ancient source material (specifically, 1990’s CASTLEVANIA III: DRACULA’S CURSE) giving it every reason to be just another grimdark action-adventure throwaway, CASTLEVANIA breaks free from the lackluster storytelling and ineffectual characterization that have marred game adaptations in the past with a nuanced, thoughtful plot and some stellar voice acting to accompany its brutal action. Showrunners Warren Ellis and Adi Shankar seem to have painstakingly reproduced the tone and setting that have defined the series since its inception, making CASTLEVANIA a step in the right direction for adult fans of both the video game series and animated television alike.
An origin story of sorts for Dracula, CASTLEVANIA opens in 15th-century Wallachia as scientist Lisa (Emily Swallow) strikes up an uneasy alliance with the mysterious vampire lord (voiced by Graham McTavish) in order to acquire forbidden knowledge that will help her aid the sick and needy. Contrary to the classic Dracula mythos, Lisa suffers no harm at his hands, the two fall in love, and eventually they get married. It’s only when Lisa is burned at the stake by the church as a witch that Dracula’s villainous turn finally takes place, and he retaliates by summoning an army from hell to exterminate humankind. It’s left up to Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), a vampire hunter from a disgraced family, to put an end to Dracula’s reign of terror over the Romanian countryside with the help of a few unlikely allies. The premiere expertly sets the tone for the show and establishes Dracula as a sympathetic, almost Byronic villain by exploring (and subsequently destroying) his fragile relationship with man.
Dracula’s rage is rivaled only by his flair for the dramatic
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By the end of the first episode, it is abundantly clear that CASTLEVANIA is no Saturday-morning romp; blood rains from the heavens as the demonic hordes maim and maul everything in their path, evoking the gritty violence of anime classics like VAMPIRE HUNTER D. Often gory and visceral and leaving nothing to the imagination, it’s a significant departure for Frederator Studios (the production company behind ADVENTURE TIME), but one they handle in stride. CASTLEVANIA’s visuals are equal parts grotesque and elegant; characters and environments are drawn with meticulous detail in stark contrast to its messy, choppy, violent action scenes.
The voice cast is superb, though sometimes a bit quiet; characters’ softer lines sometimes get drowned out by effects or music as the result of some shoddy sound balance. McTavish (AMC’s PREACHER) delivers as the evil lord of vampires, supplying the character with both a quiet tact and a palpable, seething, unhinged rage. Armitage (THE HOBBIT) delights as Trevor, the typical anti-hero whose propensity for alcohol and wisecracks is matched only by his fighting prowess. The big standout of the cast so far, though, is James Callis (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), who voices fan-favorite Alucard with a solemn poise and an underlying ferocity that is only really highlighted in the season’s final minutes. Alucard, Dracula’s son, is torn between his feelings of grief and resentment toward humankind for causing his mother’s death and his obligation to protect them at her behest, and Callis’s performance reflects that struggle expertly in a very short time.
Alucard’s also freakin’ gorgeous, which is cool
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In fact, the series so far has an equally strong emphasis on personal and meta themes as it does gratuitous violence. Blind faith and its consequences play a considerable role in setting up the characters’ motivations; the church ignores Dracula’s warnings following Lisa’s death, and the despicable Bishop (Matt Frewer) who orchestrated her death believes the word of God will protect the citizenry, to predictably disastrous results. The duality between personal wishes and responsibility is also constantly at play over the course of the opening act, as Trevor struggles with his family duty to protect people from Dracula’s horrors even though the common folk openly detest him. These themes woven throughout Ellis’s script add layers of depth heretofore unseen in game adaptations, and make CASTLEVANIA both thought-provoking and a blast to watch.
If anything, the show’s lone downfall at the moment is its brevity. The first “season” is only four episodes long—at 25 or so minutes apiece, that’s only about the length of a feature film—but Netflix has already announced that at least eight more episodes are on the way. Now that much of the framework has been laid out for the principal conflict, though, it’s questionable whether or not the plot will devolve into mindless, bloody action—but at least it’s off to a solid start. I have to admit, having been burned by video game adaptations in the past, I wasn’t hopeful about CASTLEVANIA, but it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised for once.