When Netflix officially teased their upcoming animated adaptation of the Castlevania series via a trailer starring a well-worn NES and pixelated takes on some of their most popular shows, Castlevania fans across the world reached deep into their too often tread upon hearts and found reason to hope that this series might just be the proper modern day interpretation of this series that they have long hoped for.
It is with a somewhat heavy heart that I report Netflix’s Castlevania is not a show for the fans. Instead, it is a show for absolutely everyone.
Technically, Netflix’s Castlevania is based on the NES game Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. That installment of the long-running series serves as a prequel to the majority of the Castlevania franchise – only Castlevania: Lament of Innocence takes place before it – and is widely credited with helping the series shed its horror film tribute roots and establishing a true mythology to call its own.
Whether you’ve ever played Castlevania III or even care about the Castlevania series at all is largely irrelevant in terms of your ability to understand – or enjoy – this particular interpretation of the series. That said, yes, it follows the game’s basic premise, which sees Trevor Belmont called into action once more as Dracula unleashes his army upon humanity; and yes, there are many references to Castlevania III which only fans will pick up on.
When you get right down to it, though, Netflix’s Castlevania is a tale of good and evil involving the world’s most famous vampire and the men, women, and creatures that wish to defeat him. There is something universally appealing (no Universal Pictures pun intended) about the show’s classic gothic setting and adventure archetype characters.
Of course, Netflix’s Castlevania only looks like a traditional tale of good vs. evil on the surface. Minutes into the first episode, you’ll quickly realize that the black and white morality of the original games – and many of the fictional works that inspired them – is largely abandoned in favor of a far more complicated tale wherein nothing is quite as you may expect it to be. Without diving into spoilers, let’s just say the majority of viewers may find themselves rooting for Dracula and against the church within 15 minutes of the show’s opening.
In the same vein, it must be noted that Netflix’s Castlevania is an incredibly brutal series that is not intended for children or those with a weak stomach for animated violence and generous amounts of vulgarity. Many episodes include a good dismemberment or two, and the entire series is cloaked in macabre and dread.
Actually, the show reminds me a lot of the classic animated film Ninja Scroll in terms of violence and animation style. No, Castlevania isn’t quite as brutal as Ninja Scroll (it’s thankfully devoid of animated rape scenes) but this is by far the most mature take on the Castlevania series that we’ve ever seen.
Thankfully, the show’s animation and visual design go a long way to ensure that Castlevania’s brutal design elements never feel gimmicky. The phrase “every frame a painting” jumps to mind when trying to best convey the animation team’s work on this gothic world. It feels close enough to reality to be relatable yet far enough away from our world to instill a sense of existential dread heightened by the guilty pleasure that only a well-done horror atmosphere can provide.
As for the show’s action sequences, they are nearly flawless on a technical level but a bit familiar to those with a fondness for anime combat. With the exception of a few neat moments and a particularly memorable encounter that will never make you again question whether or not a whip is actually a viable weapon, the show’s combat sequences pale slightly in comparison to the story sections and general visual splendor.
Castlevania’s writing steals the show. While the dramatic story progression sequences are all well-handled and serve their purpose, it is the show’s humor that will catch you off-guard time and time again. Trevor Belmont almost always has a sarcastic observation to make, which is always genuinely funny but never detracts from the feeling of impending dread. There is one joke that feels like something out of a Pixar film, but it is so incredibly funny – as in “rewind and rewatch” funny – that you can easily forgive its intrusion.
So far as the overall narrative goes…well, that’s a little tricky to rate. See, Netflix’s Castlevania is only four episodes long, with each episode coming in at just under thirty minutes. For those keeping track at home, that means that you can binge watch the entire series in under two hours.
It seems that the reason for this abrupt first season is two-fold. First off, Castlevania was originally produced as an animated film before Netflix jumped in and decided to add it to their library. Second, animated shows are fairly expensive to produce and there had to be some worry regarding whether or not this show would find an audience beyond Castlevania fans.
While Netflix has confirmed that they intend to produce a second season of the series, the fact remains that this initial run of episodes feels like an extended prologue for what is to come. The episodes we do get tell an effective mini-story that doesn’t necessarily feel rushed in and of itself, but there are certain key moments you’d expect from a Castlevania tale which these four episodes do not include.
It’s been said before that when the biggest complaint you have regarding a particular piece of entertainment is that there’s not enough of it, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s something special. While that’s mostly the case here, it is undoubtedly disappointing that Netflix’s Castlevania ends just when you’re starting to appreciate how special it truly is.
Still, if the choice is between a truncated take on this classic gaming franchise or Konami’s approach to the Castlevania series – i.e. absolutely nothing in recent memory – I’ll gladly take one of the best American adult animated series since HBO’s Spawn.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.