Struggles of class and religion add depth to the video game adaptation’s vampiric death.
The addled attention spans of video gamers drawn to Netflix’s new Castlevania animated series will not be unduly strained. The first season is – like Dracula’s fangs – short, potent, and dripping with reasons to want more. A furry, demonic gargoyle calls a church “an empty box.” That’s badass. So is that same monster telling a priest that his life’s work makes God puke. The brief priest/monster conversation alone is worth the two-hour runtime of the entire four-episode first season. The rest of the show is just as grimly enjoyable.
Castlevania combines Disney favorites Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the general genre of gore anime to successfully bring the video game series to the small screen. There’s a monster spurned by humanity and persecuted by a vengeful and corrupt church that oversees a terrible legacy haunting a citizenry operating entirely within the grey area. Not quite the body horror of something like Akira, Castlevania addresses the pertinent social issues of its gothic roots with its dread grounded in the understated brutality of its violence.
This is a world introduced with Dracula (Graham McTavish) finding love, seeing her burnt at the stake as a witch, and delivering an ultimatum to the humans that betrayed his trust in their kind. One year to leave. Of course, humans being what they are, don’t. They find solace in the church and guilt surrounding it. The supernatural become superstition until it comes back, roasts the offending city, and moves to destroy the nation.
This town has its own trigger-happy (immolation-happy?) Archdeacon Claude Frollo: a bishop (Matt Frewer) whose dogmatic judgments are as ironic as a Republican senator in an airport bathroom. Blame for the nation’s supernatural damnation is pointed at anyone standing outside the inherently extended fingers of the Church. Advocating for justice, the series encourages fighting back against lies and dishonest power structures in order to make gains in the larger moral war waging for humanity’s soul.
Similar to Avatar: The Last Airbender in narrative and visual style, the show briefly attempts to give a sense of the community at large and depict its characters a mix of western animation and Japanese styling. However, this isn’t kids’ fare. It’s definitively R-rated. Profane and bloody, like a vampiric Game of Thrones cartoon, nothing is sacred and nothing is romanticized – in fact, the series goes to great pains to demystify any misconceptions about its swords-and-sorcery. The notion of people allowing injustice with their silence permeates the series. The religious and the wealthy, the serfs and the scholars (an oral historian order called Speakers) — all bear some guilt for the way the world exists today.
Like the best video games, all this broad plot would be for nothing without a satisfying avatar. Ours is the last of a long line of monster hunters, Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage). He’s a grumpy drunk and, like most of the characters, plainly animated, but the backgrounds and otherworldly effects are immersive and highly detailed. Piles of corpses evoke the black plague while the architecture and furnishings provide a simple creepiness to even the civilized corners of the world. Inhabiting it is Armitage, scruffy and loose; in terms of its adaptation, the series gives its hero enough personality to be enjoyable while still being vague enough for us to sketch in the motivational gaps. He sounds completely disinterested, like how some bigger names allow their boredom into their voice acting, only for the character in question it’s the perfect intonation. However, he can’t pronounce “bestiary.” Doesn’t he know it’s about beasts and not the best “-iary” that we have?
These beasts, including an awesome cyclops, are fought with effortless and fluid combat, evocative of the practiced skill acquired after failing boss fight after boss fight. Belmont dodges, hides, and fights equally with whip and sword – a rather slick Van Helsing. Stemming from its adventure roots, in which the player must backtrack through large buildings and trap-laden lairs, the environments Belmont explores are the real treat here, teeming with odd monsters and crumbling floors that test his wills as often as the townsfolk test his patience.
This rabble, put upon by the Hell army that’s literally tearing them apart, is where the series earns its fun action. A difficult synthesis of cynicisms distrusting both faith and intellect are in the streets, in the pubs, and in the magical order housing Speakers like Sypha (Alejandra Reynoso). But it’s not all serious. In fact, there’re quite a few amusing, Hellboy-like asides that keep things watchable despite their intensity. Vampires get kicked in the nards like they’re the Wolfman in The Monster Squad, Armitage swears like a sailor. They’re entertaining scripts despite how often their bleakness draws you in.
The politics of the show are the most interesting thing the show has as it leads into its second season sometime next year. There’s a populist uprising, but it’s led by yet another elite leader in Belmont. The class differences between landed houses, religious leaders, and the farmers far below them become as dark and tangled as the demonic fur covering the living gargoyles plaguing them. While the military training of higher houses helps the townsfolk, advocating for a monarchy based on knowledge, it’s kind of the same thing as the Church’s infallible leadership and the scientific progress secreted away in Dracula’s castle.
I’m interested where these philosophical similarities collide if and when Belmont fails later in the journey and that’s always the sign of a show with potential. Will Belmont and Dracula be shown as two sides of the same elitist coin? Where does the promise of the messianic Alucard (James Callis, wonderfully detached yet amused) fit into the series? Thankfully these questions feel intentional and sticky, designed to nag at you rather than poorly sketched. All I know for sure is this is one Castle I’m sure to revisit.