WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
If you were considering letting your kids watch the first season of Castlevania on Netflix … don’t. Even if they love the game series. Seriously, this is one of the bloodiest, goriest pieces of storytelling I’ve seen in a long time, and I mean that as a compliment. Luckily, bloody dismemberment is only one of the things the show excels at.
People are comparing it to Game of Thrones, which is handy if you can’t contain yourself for the final week until season 7 starts, but may disappoint you if you’re looking for deep political intrigue and expository brothel scenes. What Castlevania does provide is a different story of good vs. unspeakable evil and the people caught in between. It asks what the cost of being a bystander to villainy is. It showcases a gorgeous, retro animation style — a cross between The Last Unicorn, Fist of the North Star, and a bucket of viscera. It doesn’t waste any time setting up the backstory: within a matter of minutes we’ve met Dracula, seen him fall in love, flashed forward twenty years, and seen his now-wife get burned at the stake. We know why he wants to watch the world bleed. Perhaps it was a little too expedient, but then again the Castlevania games were never really about Dracula. They were about the Belmonts, the family of vampire hunters who whipped and platformed their way into Dracula’s lair game after game. And with only four episodes in the first season, the show needed to move things along.
But the best part about the show isn’t how much of the Konami games it captures, or how it treats them so seriously — it’s how much of Warren Ellis is apparent in its DNA. Because frankly, while I have fond memories of playing Castlevania, it was the news that Warren Ellis would be writing and producing this weird Netflix cartoon that has had me waiting in anticipation for months. Not only has Ellis produced some of my favorite comics of all time (Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.), but he also has a gift for taking the reins of an existing property and creating something wonderful from it. To say he’s written for Marvel doesn’t do him justice. He’s swanned in and given us Iron Man’s ‘Extremis’ storyline. He took over after Joss Whedon left Astonishing X-Men. He just made Karnak, the Inhuman, into a total badass (and an asshole, but that’s a given).
See, that is what I wanted from this cartoon. All the horrible, cynical little snippets that let you know Warren Ellis is really back there pulling the strings. The random goat fucking anecdotes told in bar rooms. A prospective hero, Trevor Belmont (voiced by Richard Armitage of The Hobbit films), insisting he really doesn’t give a damn. The sheer number of times one character tries to kick another in the testicles. The fact that there are vampires, demons, whips, and even Alucard, not to mention a pretty nice clockwork platformer set piece in the last episode — that’s just window dressing. That all makes it a Castlevania cartoon. But it’s Warren Ellis who gives this show its voice and its black little heart, and makes it something rare these days: an adaptation that transcends nostalgia to finally take some risks and make something new.
Oh, and by the way: Dracula is voiced by The Saint of Killers himself, Graham McTavish. Because the guy just has a type, doesn’t he?