Dracula hasn’t faired very well in modern film or televsion. The world’s most famous vampire is a genre icon with literally hundreds of adaptations throughout movie history. However, the not-so good Count hasn’t had a solid hit under his cape in years. Dracula Untold was only a modest box office success. TV adventures in the form of the tepid “Dracula” on NBC or Showtime’s critically lauded monster rally “Penny Dreadful” were both cancelled. That makes Dracula’s most succesful outing in relatively recent history Stephen Sommer’s divisive “Van Helsing.” So, it hasn’t been looking really good for the lord of the undead.
But you truly can’t keep a good vampire down. Comic book scribe Warren Ellis and “Dredd” director/producer Adi Shankar have teamed up to adapt the fan favorite horror video game series Castlevania for Netflix. While the results aren’t perfect, they hit the right notes that horror fans are hoping for.
For those not in the know, the Castlevania games are (mostly) about the Belmont clan and their long struggle to rid the world of Dracula. Why series developers Konami dreamed up their own family of vampire hunters when the Stoker canon Van Helsing name is public domain has always been beyond me. But so it goes.
The animated series is based loosely on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, one of the most popular entries in Castlevania’s three decades long history. A strange choice though, since that game serves as a prequel to the other games and doesn’t the feature original protagonist Simon Belmont. Instead the focus here is on Trevor Belmont, whom Ellis writes as a kind of drunkard version of Hammer’s Captain Kronos character.
Speaking of Hammer Studios, Ellis is a noted fan of their vampire films. His affection is very clear through out the series. For example, one early scene features a duo of cockney accented “Translyvanians” both of whom could have easily been played by Hammer’s stalwart character actor Michael Ripper. There are also heavy traces of the ultra-violent Karnstein Trilogy. Particularly 1971’s Twins of Evil, which put the religious aspects of the vampire genre under a microscope. Putting the Church and societal conformity up for dissection proves a smart move. It’s what elevates what could have been a far more generic vampire series. All of the main characters of Castlevania are on the fringes of a repressive society.
The entire first episode is devoted to Dracula, who is shown to have an interest in science as well as black magic. When approached by a young woman named Lisa, who wants to be a doctor, the Count is smitten. Flash forward a decade, we find Lisa being burnt at the stake as a witch. When Dracula finds out, he becomes a vengeful force of nature who doesn’t care who gets caught in his demon army’s path. Innocent and guilty alike be damned. Thus Castlevania has walked a tough tight rope Dracula has a viewpoint we can relate too and we grieve for his loss. But he’s also a far more villainous and demonic version of Dracula than we’ve seen on screen in a good while.
Dracula isn’t the only one on the outs with the Church. Trevor Belmont’s whip wielding family of monster slayers have been excommunicated for their arcane knowledge. Making for an interesting dynamic between vampire and vampire killer. As mentioned before, Trevor is about as far from the stoic heroes played by Peter Cushing as you can get. Frankly put, he’s kind of a shithead. Sarcastic and cynical, he spends a good portion of his introduction in a bar brawl. This was a smart way to go with Belmont, because I think modern audiences used to characters like Blade or Ash might have a harder time with a traditional gothic vampire hunter. By giving Trevor a caustic personality, he feels contemporary even when he’s leaping around in swashbuckler boots and a fur lined coat.
Trevor is far from a one note snarky cynic though. In fact he makes for a nice study in duality, as despite professing to be selfish through and through, it becomes pretty clear that is nothing but a front. Belmont is wounded by the world because he DOES care about the people in it. So, when he does spring into action, he is a hero you can root for.
There are other heroes in Castlevania as well. We’re also introduced to Sypha, a spell casting “speaker” in the second to last episode. Those familar with Ellis’ writing from comics knows he loves writing powerful bad girls who can keep up the paces with his snarky heroes. Interestly, Ellis avoids one of his own tropes and doesn’t mold her into a femme fatale type Instead she serves as a counterpoint to Belmont’s bitterness. A hopeful hero, who still has faith in the world.
Sypha adds a lot of visual pop to the show as well. Her magical prowess adds a different flow to the fight scenes from Trevor’s “ye olde Indiana Jones” whipcracking. Almost coming off as a cast off from a Marvel superhero cartoon but adding some much needed flare to the otherwise gloomy proceedings.
My favorite scene in the entire season however is at the start of the very last episode and it’s a scene of pure, gothic, horror. The season’s true villain, the corrupt Bishop of Gresit is confronted by a horde of vampires and demons in his own church. Shocked that the monsters can enter the house of God, the Bishop proclaims he is doing holy work. Dracula, speaking through a massive hellhound says that God is sickened by the Bishop’s violent and bigoted ways. Thus allowing the vampires free entry into the church. Twisting the old myth of “inviting vampires in.” The whole scene only lasts about two minutes but Ellis’ spot on dialogue and the spooky animation make a profoundly effective moment. One both the writer and the animators should be very proud of.
If Castlevania has one major flaw it’s that is far too short. There are only four episodes and each one of them is only about 20 minutes long. The show ends just as it introduces Dracula’s renegade son Alucard and completes it’s band of vampire hunters. You can binge watch the entire show in less time that it would take you to watch most modern films. Still, leaving you wanting more is hardly a fatal flaw. The series has stylish action and gothic atmosphere to burn. I will gladly watch a second season if it’s even half as good as this first stab. Count me in for more of this version of Count Dracula.