Adapting geek culture out of its original format has proven over and over to be incredibly difficult. It took decades to get comic book movies right with any consistency, and we’ve only had “okay” video game adaptations. With Netflix’s Castlevania, producer Adi Shankar promised us the best video game adaptation ever made. I don’t think Castlevania is quite there yet, but I can’t say it’s not, either. It’s definitely on the right track, though.
Beware potential spoilers (and all manner of beast) in the review.
Not much meat
Netflix wasn’t very confident in Castlevania, and it’s obvious right from the get-go. This first season consists of just four 23-minute episodes, and what we end up with seems more like a pilot than an actual season. The good news is that the people writing the checks liked what they’ve seen, and the second season with twice as many episodes is on the way.
That initial lack of confidence could’ve come from the source material more than the names behind it. Not only have video games been notoriously difficult to adapt, but Castlevania isn’t the first one that pops to mind when we start talking about adaptations. There are dozens of titles out there that would be much easier to market and would seem to have greater appeal. With Castlevania‘s most recent installment, Lords of Shadow 2, having released back in 2014, there are also much more current properties. And the silly portmanteau title, Castlevania certainly doesn’t help.
Adi Shankar has made a name for himself in the geek community not just through producing cult hits like 2012’s Dredd, but also through the creation of something fans call the Bootleg Universe, a series of short films that pay deep homage things like comics and television. Shankar made stuff like a live-action Punisher and a gritty, mature Power Rangers reboot cool before Netflix and Hollywood had even thought to try it. These short films have shown fans that this guy seems to have an understanding of what makes these properties continue to tick along in the minds of fans, what gives them life.
With Shankar producing, the show needed a good writer. That seat is filled by comic-book writer Warren Ellis. Ellis has been writing comics for years, with award-winning stuff like Transmetropolitan and The Authority behind him. But he’s also been been working on a screen adaptation of Castlevania for some time. And not just any Castlevania story – you could pick from literally dozens of games of varying quality – but this one in particular. A decade ago, Ellis wrote about working on an adaptation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, the very game that serves as the skeleton Netflix’s Castlevania is built from. But this time, Ellis is going to get a lot more than the 80 minutes the original, Igarashi-approved adaptation was set for.
That provides a pretty good basis to start from, and Castlevania itself is, indeed a good base for the series to continue from, introducing us to some of the major players in the story and setting the stage for diving deeper into the world of 15th-century Wallachia, even if there’s some room for improvement.
Plenty of blood
As I said Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is somewhat of a skeleton of a story, with it being an 8-bit NES title and all. Ellis fleshes it out into a dark, bloody, and compelling story, though, that had me invested almost right away.
The count himself is introduced before we even meet Trevor Belmont. The story begins with a woman entering Dracula’s castle in search of knowledge she can use to help the peasantry of the medieval land she lives in. The woman’s spunk and fearlessness enchant the immortal, and their relationship – and the church’s response to it – set off the series. The count himself is given a sympathetic, believable situation that had me almost cheering for the inevitable rain of destruction he would bring down on the land.
In this first season, the church is the real villain. Dracula’s response to the church’s actions may be way, way over the top, but the church acts as a belligerent instigator in what becomes a war between humanity and demons. When the original series was coming out on the NES, Nintendo’s rules about the depiction of religion in games resulted in some minor editing of the game.
That, I can tell you, is definitely not happening here.
The church (not religion itself, though) is on blast in the series, with an overzealous bishop not only inadvertently instigating the war as he works to quash anything that isn’t unquestioned faith, but using the conflict to further control people.
We’re eventually introduced to our protagonist, Trevor Belmont, of the exiled Belmont family. With his family name besmirched, Belmont seems content to drink and fight his way across the country. Belmont himself isn’t quite as well filled-out as Dracula, I’ll admit, but I think that’s somewhat up to the brevity of this first season. As I mentioned above, it feels like a 90-minute pilot more than it does a complete season, and the four episodes that we get have to focus more on getting the team – Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard – together and establishing the danger of the church and of Dracula himself. I’m hoping these three characters will get more time to grow in the second season. As it is now, they’re more sketches of characters.
What makes that work, though, is some stellar voice acting among the primary players of the cast. Dracula’s voice is provided by Graham McTavish, who has provided voices for countless characters, as well as appearing as one of the dwarves in the Hobbit movies. He brings a humanity to the inhuman monster that makes him easy to side with and cheer for. The moustache-twirling Bishop (credited simply as The Bishop) is voiced by Matt Frewer, and while the character is somewhat two-dimensional, Frewer brings him to life with a performance that oozes evil and greed. Frewer definitely had fun with this character, and it shows each time he’s on screen. Belmont himself is voiced by the legendary Richard Armitage (who, incidentally, was also a dwarf in the Hobbit films). Armitage brings genuine humor to the character, but makes his reluctance believable, too. All of this is assisted by Ellis’ writing, which stays tight and funny throughout.
What we have on tap with this first season would seem insulting if it wasn’t so much fun. We’re left hungry for more by the end of the fourth episode. We get some great character interactions and some stellar fight scenes. Animation studio Frederator’s work comes to life during those fights, which manage to bring in bits and pieces from the games without it feeling out of place, and to pay homage to anime without violating the rules of the world the show has established. Great monster designs are fun to watch in motion, and even more fun to watch as they burst into flames at the end of Belmont’s whip or under a rain of holy water.
I should also mention that, like the religious imagery on display in the show, the violence has not been censored. If you expect your gritty medieval stories to be violent, you’ll love what Netflix has on offer. Remember, whips are all fun and games until someone loses an eye.
A strange side effect of all this is that I’m more excited than ever about the upcoming Assassin’s Creed animated series also coming to Netflix via Adi Shankar, as well as the Witcher live-action series currently in the works for the streaming service. As good as video game movies are, I think that the serial format of an ongoing series gives these longer stories the room they need to breathe, and while Castlevania is just a start, it’s a really good start that indicates more good things to come.