Instead of restarting the same quest every game, the Castlevania series follows a genealogy (the idea was condensed for Rogue Legacy, a roguelike for PC where with every new life you play as one of your descendants). The Belmont vampire hunters even mingled with Dracula’s own disreputable bloodline, forming half-breed sons of vampires, cursed ones with shoulder-length hair and burning eyes, gentlemen monsters that always reside in castles matted against lightning and bats.
So the Castlevania show on Netflix has the advantage over its fellow game adaptations in that it has more than gameplay at its disposal: it has lineages and lore. Episode 1 (“Witchbottle”) begins by reflecting the series’ diversity, focusing not on the protagonist but on Dracula himself, as he reluctantly falls in love with a headstrong scientist shunned by the church for practicing chemistry.
Already, Castlevania can claim one thing over its competition: it’s about something. There are themes in play that emerge from the game’s décor, about faith and family. There’s persecution and poverty and love. Through Dracula, Castlevania strives to be more than its game.
Dracula as a romantic figure is not a new concept. Though early cinematic portrayals ranged from the monstrous (Nosferatu) to the distantly eerie (Dracula 1931), seduction has always been their beating heart. But when Christopher Lee (Sauron, Count Dooku) played the count in the low-budget Hammer films in the 50s and 60s, he shifted the meaning of that seduction.
The sniveling beasts of early incarnations, shrinking from the sunlight and cowering from crosses, were an allegory for extra-marital sex and STDs – the woman, seduced by a non-Christian union, would remain infected by the poison of her unholy lust. To early Hollywood, vampirism was a disease earned by sin. The analogy comes easy with Max Schreck playing the count with vole-like clicking teeth and beady eyes, with Legosi grinning eerily and making a mockery of etiquette.
Imperious, stern almost to the point of dashing, Lee’s Dracula reflects the changing influence of the church on middle-American society. He was chiseled, dark, interesting. Giving in to the vampire’s temptation was now an arousing sin, a reluctant but ultimately euphoric surrender to evil.
With Dracula’s alluring darkness in play, the religion of his opposition began to seem like a restraint on sexual passion from an outmoded code of Puritan values. When Ayami Kojima drew Dracula for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, she was not looking for a beast as in the original game or the early films, but a Japanese image of Lee’s Hammer films. She drew Dracula tall, with high cheeks and intense eyes, lustrous hair, the manner of a vile gentleman caller.
The show hopes to capture this allure. The boss enemy is also the center of the show’s romance. It transgresses his power as a two-dimensional villain by giving him feelings, by attaching him to a headstrong woman who sees a lonely gentleman hiding in a monster. This leaves Trevor Belmont as a tease. He will enter the show as a secondary protagonist, an intruder on the stakes already established between Dracula and the church that wounded him. This angle is an interesting one, even if the Devil May Cry anime accomplished this by essentially making the two of them the same person.
If Dracula has become a sympathetic character, a villain by circumstance, we need a true villain to reflect the change. The mystic imperialists of the local church, led by an ambitious deacon, piss off the lord of darkness bad enough to bring down the wrath of Castlevania enemies. The vampire and the vampire hunter dislike the church equally, and form a triangle of mistrust between the medieval regime of our own past and the confrontation of a video game.
But this is all theory. At a mere four episodes, it’s with more gall than effort that Castlevania shows up with its season one. The framerate is low, the emotions are static. The first twenty-five minutes had hardly any time to resonate, and I don’t foresee a lot of dynamic motion in the show’s battle scenes. It may hint at conflicts both intellectual and emotional, but it covers very little for how quickly it moves.
Those afraid that the show would skimp on violence needn’t be — we’re leaving off this first episode with a lot of death. Castlevania gives us the spine spilling out, the guts spewing. This isn’t a kiddie anime, but it is anime-lite: it is a revolution in underachievement.
In the realm of catching up (Devil May Cry still seems to be the benchmark) Castlevania opens only theoretically. The writers see Dracula for more than a monster, and though I could have seen a fifty minute episode that explored his dilemma, he is an investing Phantom-esque anti-villain, a hero disguised by vengeance. For seeing a video game for a premise rather than a novelty, the team here leaps over the low bar set by the industry, even drawing on cinema for inspiration in putting flesh on the bones of an action-platformer.
I just can’t imagine that we’ll get far in three more episodes. Attack on Titan does quite a lot in that time with similar themes. But the creative reins aren’t that taut on Castlevania — already, after one episode, it’s beginning to wander. I fear it’s exactly what we were expecting.