Castlevania: Season 1
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Dracula is a bad man. No one ever seems to debate this point. Even if they doubt the rumors that he's a demon (vampire, hell-spawn, call him what you will), everyone has seen his handy work, the bodies on stakes propped up all around his land. And yet, despite the common knowledge among the populace, one woman was willing to venture to his castle, to seek the endless knowledge the vampire had learned through his many years of unlife. She caught his eye, gained his fancy, and, in time, became his wife.
And then the Church burned her at the stake for being a witch. When it comes to bone-headed things they could have done, none would have been more effective at gaining the ire of Dracula than that. With fury and rage, Dracula swore revenge against not only the Church but all the people of Wallachia for standing idle while his wife was murdered. He gave them one year to clear out of his lands, never to return, and then he's destroy everyone still hanging around.
But wouldn't you know it, a year passed and people still lived in the lands of Wallachia. Humanity hadn't listened and Dracula would have his revenge. If only there were a hero capable of defeating this vampire and his demonic hordes. If only the church hadn't excommunicated the one family, the Belmonts, that were capable of defending humanity. If only a single member of the clan was still a hero and wasn't just some drunk dodging his responsibilities as hard as he could. If only...
For a long time there was rumor of a Castlevania film being made. At times batted around as either a animated or live-action feature, the film sat in development hell for years before finally being revived (no vampire pun intended) on Netflix. Working largely off the scripts first written by Warren Ellis back when pre-production on the film began in 2007, the series' first season adapts what was essentially the first of a planned trilogy of films, creating a two-hour mini-series out of the material. The bar for a video game adaptation is set pretty low at this point -- Hollywood has been amazingly terrible when it comes to adapting games into film, and when a production such as this one takes so long to come to fruition, it's often expected that the resulting film or series will be terrible. Thankfully, although not perfect, the Castlevania Netflix series is really quite good.
The series gets off to a good start with the first episode. Largely focusing on Dracula, this episode recaps what's essentially hinted at in the story for Symphony of the Night. Dracula married a human, Lisa, and the two had a son, Alucard. Sometime later, Lisa was burned at the stake and the Dracula went off his rocker, swearing vengeance against all of humanity. While the series could have just expected us to say "sure, Dracula needs to die" and immediately jumped in telling the story of Trevor Belmont, giving Dracula the first episode allows us to side with him, even if just a little. We understand where he's coming from, shading his character in a way the game series was never able to. It's an unexpected way to open the series but it does serve to make Dracula a more nuanced villain (which are usually the best kind).
Of course, the Dracula goes off and does some horrible things (with a surprising amount of gore), so it's not as though we totally side with him. We still understand that a hero is needed to stop him, and we certainly don't think that all of humanity has to die for the actions of a few stupid priests.
We will comment that this first episode is pretty rushed when it comes to storytelling. We see the first meeting between Lisa and Dracula, and we get a hint at their chemistry, but then we jump ahead an untold number of years to her murder. While their first interaction is enough for us to feel bad about Lisa's death (and feel right siding with Dracula) a little more time spent with the two characters would have allowed us to bond better with them, giving their relationship (and it's eventual downfall) more punch. As it is, Lisa is a barely there character we want to like... and then she's gone. I still really like this episode and, for me, it's the best of the first season, but we would have benefited from a little more time (and breathing room) being spent in this part of the series.
But then Trevor Belmont comes in. He's our hero, and he, too, gets more shading and nuance than we might have expected (anything more than "man wears leather skirt, whips good" is more than we're expecting). Filling in the back-story between Legends and Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, we find Trevor in a bad place. He's the last of his clan, the rest of the Belmonts having been killed by the church years before. Trevor has been making his way through the world from ale stein to ale stein, ignoring what Dracula has been up to (mostly because humanity turned its back on the Belmont clan so why should the Belmonts help humanity). Trevor finding the will to fight and defeat Dracula is the main thrust of the first season, but while in theory it could be compelling, the series doesn't handle Trevor's story quite as well as Dracula's.
For starters, telling us all the Belmonts are dead is different from showing us what happened. "Show, don't tell" is a rule of storytelling for a reason and since we don't get the visceral emotions of watching the church come after the Belmonts, we don't immediately feel a connection to Trevor. He starts off as a drunkard, someone we shouldn't care that much about. Sure, there are people that are bigger dicks, jerks that go after Trevor, and we certainly side with the Belmont over those assholes, but we never really bond with the hero.
Trevor does eventually take up his whip, finding a fight that motivates him and making him a more compelling character, but that part of the story goes by quicker than it should. Trevor spends a lot of time fighting against being a hero and then, suddenly, he's just like, "yeah, okay, I care now," but we really aren't sure why. Certainly there are big villains around for Trevor to fight (not just Dracula and his demonic horde but also the evil priests in the Church) but all these people were around before Trevor finally decided to be a hero. Why he decides, "now is the time, not last week or last month," remains unexplained.
It doesn't help that the other heroes for his party, Sypha Belnades and Alucard, aren't really factors in the story until the last episode of the series, which is quite a pity as they're both vastly more interesting than Trevor. Sypha is a spunky dame in this version of the story and while Trevor's motivations are never clear, Sypha's character crystallizes immediately. She's part of a group known as "The Speakers", keepers of knowledge (and magic) who respect life and wish to see humanity prosper. Sypha immediately stands out as heroic material, someone that won't let the little guy be squashed under the boots of either Church or demons. She's interesting, well written, and well acted.
Meanwhile Alucard... fights without his shirt on. He's barely in the show for three minutes and while his magic and attacks make an impression (because Alucard is always cool), it's hard to judge his character from what little we get. Still, there's a lot of good material to work with when it comes to Alucard so there's a good chance we'll get a strong version of the character here.
What really could have helped the series get going in the first season would have been a strong villain. Dracula is around but he's not the villain of the piece just yet. No, the Church acts as our villain, but it's a cartoony, over-the-top, barely explained sect of Christianity, one that feels like a cypher for all the rage the producers feel towards organized religion. I'm not a religious person at all and I felt like it was a bit much, really. Hopefully once we get into Dracula's castle, and the big bad vampire becomes the main threat again, we'll see the series gel into something much greater than what we have so far.
That's not to say the series is bad -- far from it. We don't want to make it sound like we hate the series; we just have a number of quibbles that we hope will be fixed in the later season(s) of the show. Much of the acting in this first season is good (seriously, Alejandra Reynoso is fantastic as Sypha Belnades), the animation is well done (pretty but not overly flashy to the point of crawling up it's own ass, as so much anime does), and the story does a good job of setting mood and tone even if it stumbles with Trevor and the Church. The animators have a good grasp of action, and there are a number of set-pieces that properly evoke the power of the Belmonts and the danger of the demons they fight. Overall, it's a compelling watch, even with it's flaws, because you get the feeling things are going to continue getting good. And they just might... we'll just have to wait for season two to find out. For now, the first taste is pretty good so let's hope it becomes great.