When Netflix’s Castlevania series was first announced, I was excited. Not only is it being produced by Adi Shankar (Dredd, Venom: Truth in Journalism) and written by Warren Ellis, but it’s going to be based on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and be animated by Federator? It all seemed too good to be true.
But it’s not! Castlevania really nails the tone I always had in mind with the games with their almost too grim and macabre worlds offset by some consistently goofy characters and sweeping scenery. That the show is able to juggle all of this while delivering a story that makes a successful thematic connection to characters and visuals first introduced in Symphony of the Night is impressive. Even the little references and visuals taken directly from the games are used in service of the story, and make a natural fit.
Symphony of the Night and Dracula’s Curse both give players a few fun twist and turns, but this animated series’ creators have made just as much use of bits of trivia in the game’s manuals as they have from the games themselves. From the word go, we’re introduced to Dracula’s bride to be, Lisa.
Dracula’s wife, Lisa, is first mentioned to in Symphony of the Night (left, art by Ayami Kojima) as a healer, but is used to great effect here as a headstrong and benevolent scientist.
Lisa befriends and falls in love with Dracula through their mutual appreciation for the sciences, but the show does a good job of keeping him a bit mysterious. We see a grand research hall similar to the Alchemy Laboratory in Symphony of the Night, and learn that Dracula’s entire castle is a “travelling machine” Dracula himself refers to this as the power of immortals, and the full extent of his abilities and knowledge are kept vague beyond that. Despite how little screen time is devoted to Dracula and Lisa’s relationship, we get a good enough insight into their world views. But this gives us some insight into the society around them too via how chaotic everyone’s beliefs are. It adds an extra layer of fear to several of the show’s characters, with many using the terms science, witchcraft, alchemy, and satanism as catchalls for one scary ball of bad stuff. Not only do we also see this reflected in how Sypha’s people are persecuted, but many of the characters don’t even differentiate between Dracula and Satan himself.
It also makes for a setting where Dracula is the perfect ultimate evil to those around him. He’s immortal, a master of dark magic in regular communion with demons, and lives in a marvel of advanced engineering and architecture. It’s easy to see why people would be scared of him. Like in Symphony of the Night, Lisa’s cruel execution drives Dracula into a vengeful rage. But much like the people he’e so angry at, that rage drives him away from his knowledge of science. He instead gives his victims exactly what they expect, a horde of demons to plague the land.
This guy actually first appeared in Dracula’s Curse as a recurring boss. Despite his perpetual midcarder status, he received an undeserved face lift and was renamed “Leviathan” for the Dracula’s Curse‘s US release before returning with his current look in Symphony of the Night.
After this violent attack, the show gives us some crass comedy relief, but in the process introduces us to our crass hero, Trevor Belmont. The Belmonts, like in Dracula’s Curse
, come from a bloodline with the blessing (or some would say a
curse) of a high aptitude for destroying monsters and dealing with supernatural threats of all kind. But their close association with the occult has made them outcasts throughout the land. A family that rises to nobility and is highly regarded whenever dark forces sweep across the land, but are swept away just as quickly by the people they’ve saved once the threat has passed.
That implied ebb and flow of faith is paralleled in the demon invasion itself. Eventually a higher ranked demon confronts its counterpart in the clergy directly in one of the series’ high points. The demon is thrilled with how corrupt and tyrannical the Bishop and his charges have become. It reveals that the reason their prayers and performative acts of faith are unable to stop Dracula’s horde is because if they hadn’t strayed from God’s path so enthusiastically in their own corrupt tyranny, the demons wouldn’t have been able to appear there in the first place. According to it, God allowing demons to exist in a place at all means He’s already decided the place isn’t worth saving.
That brings us to where this season really excels with its character development: Through its action scenes. Here we see each character’s personality shown to us with how they fight, and with such a short running time and limited action that’s quite an accomplishment. Trevor is a socially inept buffoon, to the point where even if his family wasn’t exiled for dealing in the paranormal it’s easy to see how he’d have difficulty staying in anyone’s good graces. But he’s a much more resourceful and strategic combatant than he lets on, and it feels well-earned that he’s able organize and convince everyone to work together and fight back against the nightly demonic invasions.
The Cyclops battle and Sypha’s rescue are taken straight from the Dracula’s Curse, but relocated to a corridor with blue lighting evocative of Symphony of the Night.
All of the action we see looks like Castlevania. It doesn’t look like Vampire Hunter D or Devil May Cry or Underworld, it just looks like characters from a Castlevania games doing Castlevania stuff. This really comes through in the season’s final battle, as Trevor and Alucard do that mandatory thing where two would-be allies start brawling with each other pretty much on site. But it’s a great fight scene that also continues the series’ trend of merging the story and look of these two very different games together.
Alucard’s cool teleporation-esque sword attack from Symphony of the Night makes an appearance! Only three of the massive selection of swords in the game allow the player to perform this move, so it’s a nice detail in an already cool fight scene. This whole location is made to evoke the Alchemy Laboratory in Symphony of the Night instead of the ancient, crumbling tomb Alucard calls home in Dracula’s Curse.
There’s just one thing missing from this show, and that’s the music. Federator created a great look that fits the series to a tee, but Trevor Morris’ soundtrack goes for a different approach. Some heavy synth elements are used (and some of it used so typically for today that it could be plunked into a Mass Effect game), but it’s never gets quite as loud or bombastic as the music we hear in the games outside of two particular action scenes. It’s good stuff, with the closest Castlevania analogue being some of the moodier, slower tracks heard in Super Castlevania IV. An understandable move since the series is pretty talky, but series fans might be disappointed in the lack of songs from the actual games.
Realistically though we’re decades past the days of Ladyhawke or having Goblin (and its members) scoring tons of horror movies. If I was the person in charge and I couldn’t use any of the original music I’d just license music from a bunch of 70s and 80s Italian horror movies since that’s where much of Castlevania‘s sound grew from. But we were never going to get something as awesome as The Beginning blasting as Trevor smashes vampires in 2017 because it goes against how film and TV are typically scored today, and I can live with a short Netflix series not being the one to break that trend.
Fortunately, the soundtrack works with everything else this take on Castlevania has to offer. A fleshed out take on the implied plot we never got to see in two of the best games in the Castlevania series wrapped up in an alternately somber and fun horror action tale. In some ways its attempts to ape Game of Thrones makes it come off more like one of many profane, hyper-violent late 80s/90s anime mini-series, but considering the era of the two games it’s based on I wouldn’t have it any other way.