Netflix's Castlevania Is The Summer Surprise You've Never Heard Of
By Ezekiel McAdams
July 7 2017
This Article Contains SPOILERS FOR Castlevania: Season 1
Have you binged Netflix's Castlevania yet? Don't be embarrassed if you haven't even heard of it until now. Most haven't..
I remember a few months ago, in February, hearing about a "Netflix Castlevania" series, while surfing www.futoncritic.com, looking for upcoming Netflix content and being pleasantly surprised seeing the announcement. My knowledge of the Castlevania series is slim, I watched older kids play the first few games on Nintendo, at my babysitters, I saw magazine ads and I knew the name, Simon Belmont.
So after my excitement rubbed off, I was a little perplexed and puzzled on why a cartoon adaptation of a popular video game series, on Netflix, would get such little press. We live in a heavily, spoilered social media age, where if we sneeze, or accidentally click a link, we are pummeled with cast lists, set photos and trailers. It was curious that since the announcement, we were given only two things, a short trailer and a release date, July 7th, 2017. Then nothing.
And just like a bat in the night (pun intended), Castlevania, descended upon us silently, midnight, July 7th.
The series, written by Warren Elis and produced by Ari Shankar, has apparently been in development since 2007. Bleeding Cool, was sent an email by Ellis, revealing his participation and subsequent love for the franchise. The project began as a Direct to DVD film, loosely based on Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. https://www.bleedingcool.com/2017/02/09/first-time-warren-ellis-wrote-castlevania-animation-ten-years-ago/
My name’s Warren Ellis. I mostly write graphic novels and comics series. My first prose novel, CROOKED LITTLE VEIN, is out this summer, I’ve written a little bit of animation before, and I’ve been story consultant and cut-scene writer on a few videogames. And, until they fire me, I’m the screenwriter for the CASTLEVANIA D2DVD film.
The film is, of course, set in Wallachia in 1476. We’ve worked with Koji Igarashi to get the film solidly inside the Castlevania timeline, and he’s approved everything I came up with, including some new embroidering to the timeline. To make it work as a film, I had to introduce new backstory, and I went through five drafts of the premise and three of the full outline to get the material where IGA wanted it. He remains absolutely passionate about Castlevania. After eight rewrites of pre-production material, I remain absolutely passionate about beating the crap out of IGA in a dark alleyway one day.
Now, ten years later, the four episode, first season, written by Ellis, follows roughly the same idea.
Loosely based on Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, the series begins in Wallachia, 1455, with the Pilot acting as a prequel or prologue, showing us Vlad "Dracula" Tepes (Graham McTavish) meeting Lisa (Emily Swallow), the healer and scientist from the village of Lupu. They make a bargain, Dracula, will show her the science she desperately wants to take back to the world, and in return, she will help humanize him and try to trust the human race, starting with her. We fast forward twenty years, 1475, Targovista, Wallachia, Lisa has been apprehended by the church, and to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. The two have since married, and in her final words, looks to the sky and pleads to Dracula, begging him to not seek revenge for the town's ignorance and disbelief in Science. Dracula, who has taken Lisa's request has been traveling and upon hearing the news of her death, vows revenge and gives Wallachia, one year to make their peace.
In the subsequent three episodes, we are introduced to Trever Belemont (Richard Amitage), a Jack Sparrow like rogue, spending his time drinking to forget the pain of the Belemont family's expulsion from the church and Wallachia. Belemont goes on a quest to find a missing speaker (a nomadic group of historians) who disappeared looking for a sleeping savior to help protect Wallachia from Dracula's growing army.
And like that, the season is over, giving the audience only a taste of the world, and a hunger for more.
Don't fret though, for those that are now wary over Netflix's trigger happy bloodlust, ending Girlboss after only one season and axing fan favourite, Sense8, after two seasons and a Christmas special, Netflix has renewed Castlevania for a second season, of eight episodes for 2018. http://deadline.com/2017/07/castlevania-animated-series-renewed-season-2-netflix-1202125024/
So, how does Castlevania rate, in the age of Peak TV? Pretty bloody fantastic. Pun intended.
The writing by Ellis, is crisp. The dialogue crackles and despite an exposition dump in certain areas, adds to the nuance and world building of Wallachia. Ellis is able to perfectly balance grim horror, snarky overtones and levity when needed. There is a certain scene at the end of episode 1, where two tavern goers relate a story where a fellow villager engaged in bestiality with one shepherd's goat The scene is to bizzare for words culminating with an eye roll from Belmont..
Ellis humanizes Dracula. We understand his suffering and his need for vengeance. In his short appearance, Dracula doesn't feel like this evil incarnate, mustache twirling, god but a grieving widow who lost everything and wants the world to pay for it. The scene with Dracula hearing the news of Lisa's death, only to cry blood is surprisingly touching.
Ellis uses religious persecution as the true horror upon Wallachia, where religious iconography is juxtaposed to the bloodshed and carnage perpetrated by Dracula's horde. This analogy continues with The Bishop (Matt Frewer,) used as true embodiment of evil using religion and his beliefs as a justification. The Bishop who evokes a lot from Judge Frollo of Hunchback of Notre Dame or Bishop Mandible from Loom as a power hungry tyrant using his power and belief's to fuel his personal mandate. Ellis doesn't make The Bishop feel like a troupe, but a man so blinded by ideology and lust for political power he compromised virtues long ago.
Both The Bishop and Dracula are given that duality, where their need for vengeance, to clean out the world, The Bishop's hatred of anything beyond his understanding; science, the devil and Dracula's contempt for humanity make them both interesting characters with strong convictions who are compromised by their views of the world.
One of the true stars of this series, is this breathtaking, gorgeous animation from Powerhouse Animation Studios. The animation, radiates blood, gore and decapitation in high def , where it routinely shows Belmont taking out a priest's eye, with his whip, Vampire Killer and dispatching demons with a pulpy style that evokes Full Metal Alchemist and anime from Studio Ghibli. The stylization presents character detail with raw emotion while making the world and landscape of Wallachia something outside of a macabre gothic painting. Never before, has carnage been so beautiful set against a stylized gothic art deco backdrop.
The voice acting, assembled by casting and voice director, Meredith Layne, CSA should be applauded. McTavish, most known as Dwalin, from the Hobbit trilogy, is perfect as the moody, angsty, titular, vampire . McTavish brings an empathy and humanity not often seen from the famous vampire, which makes his vengeance more understandable then the usual cliché of I'm evil, for reasons most notably depicted prior.
Armitage, most known as Thorin, from the Hobbit Trilogy as well or as Francis Dollarhyde from TV's Hannibal, brings a snark and a put upon evanescent attitude to Belmont who's quips and behavior are akin to Jack Sparrow until he takes out an eye and reminds you why the Belemont family is so feared. Armitage evokes a quiet sadness hidden behind the angst in his performance, which adds a lot to the subtext.
Frewer, most known as "Big Russ" Thompson from Honey I Shrunk The Kids or the eponymous character from 80's cult classic, Max Headroom, brings a fiery rage so blinded by his beliefs that he would rather fail then admit his errors and arrogance. Fewer is perfect as the snake in the priest's clothing dripping with venom, power and contempt that makes his character of the Bishop so delicious.
Special praise goes to both actors, Swallow and Alejandra Reynoso who play Lisa and Sypha Belnades, the missing Speaker who is also a practicing magician. Both get little to do in this short season but make the most of it. Swallow brings a warmth and compassion to Lisa, that is shortly missed in subsequent episodes and Reynoso brings a strength and fearlessness as Sypha, that I hope is given much more to do in season two.
Castlevania is a great start but far from perfect, feeling more like a prologue or a special feature. The four episodes go by quickly, leaving an immediate "THAT'S IT?" reaction to your screen. There are also not many female characters, which is a problem.
The two that are the most prominent, Lisa and Sypha, have very little to do. I hope that in future episodes, Lisa's backstory is expanded, we are introduced to a character, so excited by science and a need to heal and help others, let's show that. Show us the love affair and relationship with Dracula and why he would be so wounded by her death.
In the case of Sypha, I'd like her to be more prominent in the next season, show her skill as a scholar and magician, and why Trevor will need her to purge Dracula's forces.
On an unrelated note, I loved the character of the big blue beast that hunted down the Bishop, making the line "let me kiss you" terrifying. The beast's discord with the Bishop before his death, arguing semantics of love vs beliefs was a highlight. I'd love to learn more of this creature.
Going forward, Ellis has a lot to work with. In the closing moments of the season finale, Allucard, Dracula's son, joined Belemont and Sypha, which could bring an interesting dynamic of a bloodlust being spurned against his father's genocide to Wallachia as well as a character, not yet introduced from the video game, Grant Danasty, a pirate. Ellis has a whole world and history to unravel with Castlevania, I'm excited to see what he does with it.