Video game adaptations have a long and chequered history in the world of pop culture. Some of them have been okay, others have been mediocre, and there are those infamous few that are borderline war crimes. For some reason, one of the most quickly evolving and interactive art forms, one that is more heavily influenced by film history and techniques than arguably any other medium, has yet to produce cinematic gold. It’s not for a lack of trying either, although it may be that some are trying too hard (the Super Mario Bros. movie, anyone?) Hollywood eventually figured out comic book adaptations, to the point where they’re now the dominant medium, so why not video games? Castlevania always seemed like prime adaptation material. The Konami games are hugely inspired by classic horror, from the Universal monsters to Hammer to schlocky B-movies, and their expansive mythology has immense potential for a cinematic saga. How could an action-horror with its roots firmly in cinematic lore fail?
Netflix and comic book legend Warren Ellis smartly decided that animation was the way to go with their adaptation of Castlevania. Ostensibly an adaptation of the third game, Dracula’s Curse, the series continues on from its first season by expanding the story of the eponymous count’s plans to annihilate humanity in revenge for the death of his wife at the hands of the clergy. Standing in his way are Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the last monster hunter with his family name who has fallen on hard times, spell-caster Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and Dracula’s dhampir son Alucard (James Callis), who has vowed to stop his father’s planned genocide.
A major problem with season one was its brevity and the obvious restrictions put in place by a limited budget. With season two, those problems are somewhat fixed. The episode count has doubled, the scale has increased, and the pacing issues are greatly relieved. More time is given to the wider vampire mythos as well as the many allies and back-stabbers Dracula has accrued over the centuries (of course one of them is a Viking warlord who will shag anything that moves and of course he is voiced by Peter Stormare). Fan favourites from the games are introduced, including a wonderfully scheming Carmilla (Jaime Murray) and the Devil Forgemasters Isaac and Hector (Adetokumboh M’Cormack and Theo James), humans who have renounced their own kind and remain loyal to the vampires’ cause. Their introductions flesh out this world and add new shades of moral complexity, which is right up Warren Ellis’s alley.
The second season brings in more vampires, more allies, and a whole lot more scenes of people/vampires sitting around in candlelit rooms and scheming. The budget may have increased but the cost-cutting measures remain clear. Some moments are gorgeous to look at while others are akin to 1980s Saturday morning cartoon animation, with five or six frames of movement and little else. The show shines in moments of detail, such as the majesty of Dracula’s labyrinth of a castle. As a purely aesthetic adaptation of the books, the series passes with flying colours. With the characters, however, most of the emotional work is left to the actors’ voices, but at least we get some badass fight scenes.
Warren Ellis is not a man whose work is best known for optimism or pep. This is the guy behind Transmetropolitan, after all, and he’s an ardent supporter of the advancement of secularism. Castlevania has that Ellis-ness in spades, particularly through the depiction of Dracula’s suicidal nihilism. This is not the majestic vampire warlord of pop culture past. Here, Dracula (voiced with weary disdain by Graham McTavish) just doesn’t care anymore. The only thing driving him to keep going on with undead life is the annihilation of humanity in revenge for the death of his wife. In terms of Dracula depictions, it’s one with less of the impressive power than one may be used to, but there’s an elegiac appeal to it, greatly helped by McTavish’s performance.
The rest of the characters aren’t much cheerier either, and none of them, not even the other humans, have a point-of-view on humanity much more charitable than the Count: Trevor Belmont is depressed over the massacre of his family by the very people they tried to help; Alucard is torn between two worlds and finds no home in either; both Isaac and Hector have given up any allegiances to their own species; and all the vampires just want control over their livestock. This approach can make it tough for the audience to know who to root for. Genocide isn’t fun, obviously, but the vampires remain more interesting than the humans, and the humans who intrigue the most make the best cases for wiping out the species. It doesn’t help that there are numerous scenes of humans being such cartoonish levels of evil that the nihilism cannot help but spill off the screen.
If you’re a fan of the source material then Castlevania is the perfect blend of faithful and inventive that makes for a fun viewing experience, complete with Easter eggs and a genuine love of the games. For novices, the story and characters remain gripping enough to hold one’s interest. While the series is light on laughs - except for sardonic Trevor and sullen Alucard’s fan-fiction ready sniping at one another - the overall experience is one of surprising emotional resonance. Castlevania is an absolute downer that’s proud of its own nihilism, but its ambition and commitment to stylized pessimism is worth your time.
Header Image Source: Netflix