** Warning: Here be plot spoilers **
OK, I’ll admit, the only things that are strictly (neo)Victorian in Netflix’s new Castlevania series are Dracula himself and an occasional Tesla coil. But I had a damn fine time with this series and I make the rules around here, so we’re going with it.
The series is adapted from Konami’s epic Castlevania series of videogames, which first appeared in 1986/7 on the Nintendo NES, to be followed by around 30 more titles over the next three decades and across multiple gaming platforms. Yet short of playing Symphony of the Night (which pioneered the ‘Metroidvania’ gaming style and adopted a cool, Yoshitaka Amano-inspired art style by Ayami Kojima) with school friends in the 90s, it’s safe to say my knowledge of the Castlevania franchise was limited and my expectations of an adaptation low.
LOW EXPECTATIONS?! OF A VIDEOGAME ADAPTATION?! I hear you gasp. I won’t even bother getting into all….this….
The first thing you notice about Netflix’s Castlevania, though, is how much it is set apart by its script. Written by Warren Ellis of Marvel comics fame, the script is wry and ballsy and, quite frankly, does an astounding job of establishing characters and building a complete story arc in just four twenty-five minute episodes. In fact, the only major criticism I’ve seen from fans so far is that the series, which has clearly been a toe-dipping exercise by Netflix, just isn’t long enough. Netflix have since green-lit season two which will be eight episodes long.
The first episode begins with an utterly charming pre-credits scene in which a young woman named Lisa, who wants to be a doctor in a highly superstitious Wallachia in 1455 (good luck with that), turns up at Castle Dracula in search of knowledge. At this point, Smooth-Dracul, impressed by her moxy, immediately puts the moves on her.
As a tool of seduction, Dracula forswears singing teapots and candlesticks in favour of tesla coils, LOTS AND LOTS of TESLA COILS!
The opening scene does an amazing job at getting us invested in what is ultimately the affections of the villain and the relationship which is going underpin the conflict of the entire show, all in the space of about 180 seconds. But boy howdy do things go real wrong real fast for Dracula and Lisa from there, when the church decides to burn Lisa as a witch and Dracula decides to summon the armies of hell to avenge her.
Cue super-slick opening credits which seem to owe a lot to the style that Ridley and Tony Scott developed for Pillars of the Earth (2010):
After this endearing prologue we switch gear and meet our hero, Trevor Belmont, last son of the demon-hunting Belmont clan of the video games. Trevor, played to gruff perfection by Richard Armitage, is drunk, down at heel, and belligerent and Wallachia’s last hope against the demon hoards who wreak surprisingly gnarly violence on the people of Wallachia. Which reminds me – if you’re thinking about sitting your kids down in front of this new ‘cartoon’, please wait a few years. There are more than a couple of moments of bloody violence, fu-words, and scatological humour. It all works gloriously well but, well, an example: I’ll bet your kids never heard a Disney character in a tavern tell a five-minute anecdote about goat-f*cking.
So, trained in the ancient arts of whip-based combat and snark, Trevor teams up with a solidly sensible magician/wandering scholar named Sypha to seek out Dracula. The final episode, though, ends not with a Belmont/Dracula showdown in the style of the games, but with the discovery of the third member of the hero team who will, presumably, fight Dracula in series two.
And this is where you’ll need to consider yourself thoroughly spoiler-warned, because it’s time to talk about Alucard. (Confession: It took me a shamefully long time and several minutes’ scoffing at what a stupid name is ‘Alucard’ to work out that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards.) Alucard arrives ‘floating Vampire-Jesus’ style and thus begins the sassiest fight sequence since the Man in Black fought Inigo Montoya.
Developing a grudging respect for his whip-wielding opponent, Alucard reveals his true identity as the son of Dracula, and his true purpose: to defeat his father in his mother’s memory. There’s only one problem with Alucard’s character design, but it’s a strange and unsettling one, and it’s this:
What is it? What does it WANT?! Why does Castlevania keep thrusting this weird bondage-style crotch-bandage in my face? Now, maybe it’s just that I’m one of the Castlevania uninitiated. Maybe you enjoy a bit of playful crotch bandagery as part of your daily routine, and that, my friends, is A-OK. My husband tried to comfort me by suggesting it was a sword belt, but I SEE WHAT’S GOING ON HERE, NETFLIX… I know a shameless piece of fan-service when I see one. So I sincerely hope that those of you who know the franchise enjoyed the gratuitous wang-bandage. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to go on feeling like we’ve accidentally read someone’s private erotic fanfiction and live with that discomfort.
Trevor and Sypha, however, clearly oblivious to Alucard’s weird accessorizing and the fan-service unfolding right before their eyes, assemble for the epic HEROSHOT to close the series, leaving us all cheering and then coming to terms with the prospect of a year-long wait for more.
Castlevania, then, has been something of an experiment for Netflix but, I think most fans would agree, a wildly successful one. Four episodes of 25 minutes each is not enough, but oh man did they make the most of every minute and every penny of budget. Until season two airs in 2018, most of us will now have to content ourselves by digging out our old Playstation copies of Symphony of the Night and pondering the big questions for season 2:
– Will there be more awesome fight sequences?
– How will the series reconcile Dracula as a figure of science and enlightenment with our heroes’ quest to destroy him?
– And will Alucard ever put on a shirt?!