Castlevania (Review)

By: Mithrandiel

It was hardly a few days ago that I shared my first impressions of the upcoming Netflix series, Castlevania, with all of you. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for the series to land, and eagerly devoured the meager 4 episodes as soon as they went live. Then I watched it again.

Then I watched it again.

I mentioned that coming out of the panel at Anime Expo I mainly had the thought “Dreams do come true!” running through my mind. After over 3 decades on this planet, however, I couldn’t help but let some cynicism creep in during the days that lapsed between the initial screening and the arrival of the full series. Could it really deliver on the hype? Or was I just wanting to see it through rose-colored glasses?

After watching it three times, I can tell you again: dreams do come true. Castlevania is the video game adaptation we were hoping and praying for – and with the recently announced 2nd season, I can only hope this ushers in an era of video game series for a new generation of fans.

At the screening, one of the first things I noticed was the dynamic and impressive voice acting. The larger project certainly did not disappoint. Graham McTavish, prominently featured in the opening episode as the infamous Vlad Dracula Tepes, utilizes a lower, grainy tone to depict the reclusive Count as equal parts sophisticated and formidable. One scene in particular struck a chord both during the initial screening, and again with each of my subsequent viewings: When he discovers that his wife, the scientifically minded Lisa Tepes, had been captured and burned at the stake by the Church. He comments that he only lived like a man because she asked him to. “Your wife mentioned you were traveling…” an elderly neighbor comments as Dracula looks down at his hands, clenching them in a rage. “Yes…the way men do…slowly.”  

The regret, the anger, the rage and sorrow all blend terrifically in that line to let you know that shit is about to get real. It’s unfortunate that after the first episode we don’t get to enjoy much more of Mr. McTavish’s performance – but this disappointment is balanced out by the arrival of our star protagonist: Trevor Belmont.

Voiced by Richard Armitage, who shared a screen with Graham McTavish in The Hobbit trilogy (Thorin Oakenshield and Dwalin respectively), Trevor Belmont is far from the valiant hero eager to save innocents from Dracula’s onslaught. The Belmonts have been excommunicated, shunned and rejected by the larger populace, and so when Trevor learns that Dracula has unleashed an army from Hell to essentially extinguish the human race, his default response seems to be “Told you so.” We meet our hero in a bar, getting sloshed out of his mind while overhearing a couple locals discuss the injustice of being pawns to the rich and the powerful. Being the charismatic and patient hero that he is, of course the interaction ends with a brutal bar-brawl. Hearing Richard Armitage introduce himself as “Trevor f***ing Belmont…” in a drunken tone is everything that I didn’t realize I needed in my life. There are some shreds of heroism, chivalry and honor left in the Belmont bloodline, and Trevor’s kinder moments help to complicate what could otherwise be a predictable anti-hero archetype. Mr. Armitage’s performance runs the gamut between contemplative and self-reflecting to crass and aggressive, expertly navigating a rich family history and robust character background that is only beginning to be revealed in the precious few episodes of season 1.

Complementing Mr. McTavish and Mr. Armitage is a larger cast of equally talented voice actors including James Callis (Alucard), Alejandra Reynoso (Sypha Belnades), Emily Swallow (Lisa Tepes), and Matt Frewer (The Bishop). Everyone pretty much gets their time in the spotlight, with a consistency of talent and ability that you don’t often find in animated series.

A huge part of this appreciation of the voice acting talent comes down to the words they’re saying, of course. Delivering in a big way when it comes to the script is veteran writer Warren Ellis, best known for his work on comics such as Transmetropolitan, Red, and the Iron Man arc that eventually became Iron Man 3. Ellis’ style shines through in the Castlevania script, combining biting humor with elements of human drama that are tinged with the supernatural plague that now hangs over Wallachia. While there is no iconic exchange including men being described as “Miserable little piles of secrets…” I have no doubt you will thoroughly enjoy Castlevania’s script, and the voices that help bring these familiar characters to life.

As if a fantastic script and well-casted voice talent weren’t enough, there’s the animation itself. Headed up by Spencer Wan, Castlevania’s animation team brilliantly captures the movement and action of our whip-wielding hero, and spares nobody in its depiction of the evil that Dracula’s hordes are bringing upon the land. Seriously – the show is surprisingly violent at times; from bisected villagers, to wives waking up next to the decapitated bodies of their husbands, to helpless babies being carried away by vicious winged goblins…Netflix’s Castlevania is in a world you would likely not want to find yourself in. There are a number of action-filled scenes in the 4-episode run, and each one grows with intensity until the climactic duel in episode 4. I won’t go into details, but can say with confidence that having quite a bit of experience with Castlevania games in general, the movements of the respective duelists are all I could hope for in an animated rendition. Trevor’s whip-manipulation, Sypha’s spell-casting, Dracula’s vast demonic hordes, all of these elements and more are faithfully brought to life by a studio that obviously values the franchise.

The only gripe I have regarding the series was actually brought to my attention by a colleague of mine, which resulted in my 3rd viewing, after which I had to agree. The soundtrack often fails to live up to the fantastic animation, world-building and voice acting that Castlevania has going for it. This is particularly disappointing following the opening sequence, which is a mythical creature made of 100% hype and 200% awesome, and had the ability to get the entire panel room cheering by the time the title rolled onto the screen. I’m hoping that season 2 might be more mindful of the soundtrack, keeping in mind fans of the franchise, particularly Symphony of the Night. 

Simply put, Castlevania is one of the best adaptations of a video game franchise made to date. Despite the fact the larger soundtrack doesn’t live up to the fantastic opening theme, the superb animation, professional-grade voice acting and impressive script more than make up for Castlevania’s flaws. I, along with thousands of others I’m sure, am eagerly awaiting the 2nd season.

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