Review: Castlevania

castlevania netflix poster

Yeah, yeah, I know this isn’t a movie and that it wasn’t technically released in the cinemas or on any kind of physical media. But Netflix’s 2017 animated series, based on the classic ye-olde Nintendo games, is pretty much a singular film chopped up into four 25 minute easily digestible chunks. You’re gonna watch them all at once. So sit down, strap in, and get ready to find out about some dude called Trevor trying to kill some other dude called Dracula.

It’s an alternative history Earth. 600 years ago, in Wallachia (Romania today), and a feisty young scientist called Lisa breaks into Vlad Dracula’s castle to learn his advanced technological knowledge. Impressed by her courage and earnestness, Dracula (Graham McTavish – Rambo 4), agrees to teach her about electricity, steam power, and the majesty of giant cogs moving giant machines. In return, she’ll do her best to make him less insufferable and more forgiving of us stupid humans.

Dracula Lisa Castlevania Netflix

Twenty years later we’re sad to see Lisa being burned at the stake as a witch by Christian fundamentalists. Castlevania really sticks it to the old Christians, portraying the church as utterly corrupt, evil, and the general scourge of all happiness on Earth. The fact that it’s their zealous fear that causes the following atrocities is constantly reinforced to us throughout. We’ll also be treated to numerous crosses being torn down or turned to fire, and various clergymen (all bastards) being dismembered, eaten or battered to death. I don’t know if writer Warren Ellis had a beef with Jesus in a previous life, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Lisa’s death is primarily orchestrated by The Bishop, an intolerably cruel, pursed-lipped type. He’s the kind of guy who rationalizes all the evil via his religion. As he holds an office of prestige and power, he feels he has the authority of God to command lesser folk. He’d find a way to make strangling a bucket of puppies somehow in His interest.

At the time, Dracula is away wandering the Earth, trying his best to get to know the locals and so forth. His gardener informs him of Lisa’s death upon his return. He’s merciful enough to tell her to get the heck out of town before tomorrow because he’s literally going to go batshit crazy. He crashes the Bishop’s party as a giant column of fiery diarrhoea from the sky. His face appears in the fire, demanding to know wtf has happened.

castlevania netflix dracula gif

After they renounce him as unreal, he gives them one year to get their shit together before he returns to kill every living person. One year. That’s enough time to sell your house, your car, and move abroad, Dracula reckons. It’s a generous amount of time in fact. But you know us old humans, we’re dumb fucks aren’t we.

No one heeds his warning. So one year hence, when a new fat Archbishop is telling everyone that the threatening flame face was full of crap, a storm starts brewing. Then it starts raining blood. Evil winged bat-creatures also appear from the sky and start devouring the people of the city. They then set out to the far corners of Wallachia, to carry out Dracula’s genocidal command.

castlevania netflix season 1

It’s in this messy scenario we meet our hero Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage – The Hobbit) in a tavern. He’s a dashing hero type, with stubble, a whip, short sword and big bear skin cloak. As a Belmont, a member of a former great aristocrat house of supernatural slayers, he’s fallen on hard times since the Church took over and renounced everything. He’s busy drinking his worries away with the folks of some small town. Everyone doesn’t seem to care that an army of dog-bats is ravaging around, eating the shit out of everything. It’s like a tax audit; it’s something that only ever happens to someone else.

But they don’t like the Belmonts, who the Church have blamed the current predicament on. So when one of the knuckle-heads recognises the crest of Trev’s shirt, a fight ensues. Trevor is your Han Solo type. A cocky badass who isn’t afraid to use some dirty tactics to win. It’s a shame that he’s three sheets to the wind, as he’d normally walk all over peasants like these. Instead, he leaves with a bloody nose and a bruised ego.

netflix castlevania trevor belmont

Hung over, he wakes up on the outskirts of Gresit, a walled city which is being attacked every night by Dracula’s forces. Morale is low, the bodies of the dead are being piled high, and supplies limited. Fear rules the streets, helped by a band of dickhead clergymen under the control of the same Bishop who burned Lisa a year previous.

Trevor comes upon one such band who are beating an old dude who belongs to a group called “the speakers”. They go about recounting stories of old and generally keep a record of all knowledge. Some of them are even rumored to know magic. The Church hates them, as you can imagine, and blame the terrors befalling Gresit on The Speaker’s presence in the city.

Despite not wanting to get involved Trevor’s heroic instincts get the better of him, and he easily outmatches the three clergymen. One ends up without some fingers, the other an eye. We know they’ll be back in greater numbers (like sand people), so Trev helps up the Elder speaker, and is taken to their little coven. Trevor warns them that the townspeople are being riled up by the Church, and that they won’t survive the night. The Speakers can’t leave though, as one of their number, the Elder’s granddaughter Sylpha, is missing.

According to local legend an ancient soldier “sleeps” under the city, waiting for the right time to awaken and to save the world from an unspeakable evil. Obviously everyone kind of reckons that the time this asshole needs to get out of bed is now, so the Speakers came here to find him. Sylpha went into the underbelly of the city a night ago and hasn’t come back. They can’t leave without her (she has the car keys or something).

castlevania netflix

Trevor agrees to go find her as long as they promise to leave the city upon his return. He really doesn’t care that they’re here to save the people of Gresit, nor does he really care about the Speakers themselves. But he has a soft spot for people being wrongly blamed for circumstances they have no control over (like what happened to himself).

Heading into the catacombs, he find various statues of people. My immediate thought was “medusa”, but it’s not. Instead it’s a giant cyclops whose eye turns you to stone. After some high quality whip moves, Trevor manages to slay it, and all the stone people start to return to flesh (most of them having body parts snapped off years ago). Sylpha, fortunately, turns out to be a young woman who is still entirely whole.

castlevania netflix trevor

Back at the Speaker’s enclave, Trevor insists they honour their word. Sylpha won’t hear of it though, as she rationalizes that a cyclops wouldn’t have been down there unless it was protecting something worthwhile. Trevor argues it isn’t a savior as all the clockwork shit down there looked remarkably similar to the inside of Dracula’s castle.

It’s all academic though, as the Church-bastards return to punish Trevor and execute the Speakers in the vain hope their death will stop the nightly attacks. Plus it’s nearly night time, when the real bad things start coming out to play.

So is Trevor gonna shrug his shoulders and get the hell out of dodge, or is he gonna drop the carefree attitude and take up arms like his ancestors?

castlevania netflix dracula

Long ago I had a story book called “Simon’s Quest”, which was effectively the novelization of Castlevania 2. I’m not sure how the writer ( millionaire Seth Godin) could pull 150+ pages out of a limited, two-dimensional game about some pixels called Simon, but hey, somehow he did. But because it was the story of the second game I could never read it as I’d never read (or played) the first story/game. Fuck there probably wasn’t even be a preceding book.

This posed a problem as I’m kinda…particular; I can never jump into the middle of something like that. I’m a completionist and I want to get the whole picture. It’s why I’m currently languishing in Netflix Marvel exile, having gotten bogged down in the boring mire of Iron Fist, desperately wanting to skip to The Punisher series everyone is raving about. But I can’t.

Any way, this unread book, which is probably still in the attic, was my first introduction to Castlevania. In a sense I was aware of it’s existence, but was uninterested. I was a Sega child, and Castlevania was some Nintendo-only title after all. According to a load of stuff I’ve skimmed online, it’s been remade and serialized numerous times, all of which I’ve paid little attention to.

castlevania netflix

So I can’t say what lead me to want to watch it in the first place. Can’t have been the cast, as I didn’t know about them at the time. Maybe it was some impetuous desire to watch some anime for the first time since my Ninja Scroll retrospective a few years back? I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that it was worth the punt.

Yeah, the characters are as back-story rich as you’d get in a generic super hero movie, but they’re well animated and really well cast. As a big fan of the Making of the Hobbit, I can only imagine it being a fun reunion for Armitage and McTavish.

Dwalin and Thorin Graham McTavish Richard Armitage Hobbit behind the scenes

So what they never meet on screen in Castlevania, who cares? Both have top quality voices, and I was pleasantly surprised they used McTavish as the vengeful yet noble Dracula, and Armitage as the feisty hero. Usually it’s the other way round. Armitage works surprisingly well, and makes the character’s shaky transition from uninterested lay-about to have-a-go hero more believable. It’s like being informed that your car has been stolen, but you’re told by Morgan Freeman – the voice just makes it that bit nicer.

They’re ably backed up by James Callis whom like McTavish only briefly appears. He plays it a bit different, and I was surprised to find that it was that crazy, evil dude who shags one of the cylons from Battlestar Galactica. The remaining cast, albeit less prominent, is comprised of solid voice actors, each with strong histories in the industry.

Most importantly, as it’s American written, the dialogue actually makes sense, which is typically a problem when a (traditionally) Japanese anime is dubbed into English. In fact it’s sharply written with some real wit. I chuckled like a tickled whore when Trevor knees Alucard (Dracula’s half-vampire son) in the balls and the vampire disgustedly retorts “c’mon, this is a classy duel, not a bar fight”.

Equally, the opening scene, between Lisa and Dracula, proves a really effective opener. There’s actual chemistry and you can believe the two fall for each other. It makes it all the more sad when she’s burnt at the stake for the simple crime of wanting to know more about the world. We can understand Dracula’s enraged response to the death of his wife. Exterminating the entire human race is a bit much, but we’re kind of on his side, all thanks to good writing and even better casting.

On a production level the animation is of decent quality. It’s not as well animated as Castlevania’s stylistic cousin, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, but it’s more than serviceable. Brought to life by the Texas-based Powerhouse Animation Studios, it may lack the fine detailing of it’s Japanese forefathers, but the fight scenes are incredibly dynamic. The battle between Trev and Alucard is especially slick for the finale.

netflix castlevania alucard vs trevor gif

And sadly that is the finale (of this season). Trevor never actually gets to hunt down old Dracula. That shit is apparently being saved for season two. For that reason if this was a DVD or cinema release I couldn’t recommend it. It’s so clearly half a story and I’d have felt short changed had I actually paid money for it. I still kind of felt “is that it” half way through episode three when you realize they aren’t going to end this thing inside of 25 more minutes. Thankfully, the final episode is strong in it’s own right, despite not book-ending the greater story in any way shape or form.

The setup to season two is well cemented with the central trio of heroes (I won’t spoil who) preparing to set out to kill Dracula and save the world. It’s something I’m gonna watch and something you should go and watch too…after you’ve seen this first season obviously. You’d be mental to do it the other way round.

I don’t think this is going to go down as an all time classic (like Ninja Scroll or Vampire Hunter D), but there are a lot worse anime out there. It’s fun, well animated, really well voiced and will satiate any bloodlust for insanely graphic, anti-religious vampire horror you may suffer from. Get it watched now (on Netflix).

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