“The violence wasn’t necessary,” someone says, “but it is appreciated.” Now we’re into the main arc of the Castlevania cartoon after Dracula’s melodramatic setup. Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) is casually in the lead, the framerate is still a bit below industry average, and the violence doesn’t really seem to have a point. But it’s appreciated.
A monster grips a baby’s corpse in its teeth, the mother screams to find her husband’s throat eaten beside her, and Belmont says “here we go,” waddling through a storm-drain complaining about the smell. A bit later he spits on a pile of corpses. He’s an apathetic savior, sleeping in his own mind, doing the right thing when his guilt corners him into it.
Director Sam Deats seems a bit like that, throwing in a sobering dance tune while Belmont casually dispatches a priest, whiplashing his eyeball out just as your toes get tapping. Deats doesn’t quite have a grasp on dark comedy – it’s more like he enjoys violence, but throws in a joke when cornered into it. By what? Castlevania wasn’t originally a very serious property (the first game was essentially a Universal monster movie mash-up). But I think the beautiful boy bishōnen of the later entries has infused it with a princely attitude towards its own tone. Spitting all over the presumptions of the epic story seems like a way to communicate to people who just won’t take this stuff as seriously as it takes itself.
Trevor is a great choice for that, as opposed to the oblivious Simon or pompous Alucard. Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit films) has the right mix of reluctant competence and playfulness that makes Trevor enjoyable as an aloof guide through the tortured city of Gresit on the morning after an attack from Dracula’s hordes. But as it’s all (barely) transpiring, as Trevor takes a quest from a group of ostracized soothsayers to save one of their own from the city basement, I have to ask what we’re all doing here in a show called Castlevania.
Instead of elevating the whole bit – the castle, Dracula and his minions, the religious warrior – this show takes a road never traveled. Episode 2 reveals the show’s plot to be taken most literally from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, but there’s not even an inkling of a castle or a mythic quest or a relatable plight. So far, everything is floating around kind of apathetically: just because Dracula seemed to have a bit of a tragically misunderstood monster vibe, at this point I’m wishing the show had stuck with him and his lady. Maybe she could have been the vampire hunter braving Dracula’s hordes, forming a strangely possessing relationship with him until taking him for her husband, in a final twist of the monster vs hero fate?
There’s just nothing happening. There’s no meat. Episode 2 involves a lot of talking to people, which would require emotional resonance, and a lot of fighting, which would require better animation or a more consistent tone.
There are angles that I like. I like that the institution of the church is portrayed at odds with true Christian warriors (at one point Trevor says “Jesus of Nazareth” under his breath). I like that in place of the traditional monster the religious regime is given the weight of its mysticism, manipulations, and prejudices in theory. In practice, there’s just not a lot to say. Trevor mumbles a bit about banishment. He really doesn’t like priests, apparently.
Had they seen the opportunity for a reversal of traditional roles – a slow transformation in our allegiances from the religious elite to the vampiric anarchists – they would have known that first you need a status quo. First we would have needed to experience Castlevania, the typical adventure, the vampire slaying monomyth, the Christ allegory, and then maybe we could have reversed, reverted, and broken it with progressive or neo-liberal or even libertarian ideas of state and religious institutions.
But without that adventure, that precedent, Castlevania so far doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s a sober attempt to give depth to a myth that it, curiously, ignores in the process. It doesn’t add to vampire legends with eerie sub-history, or promote its video game with challenging representations of gameplay, or even support itself with motivations for its new characters.
The very idea that Episode 2 is half-way through this first season (barely a prologue, if it keeps going at this pace) seems to indicate a lack of enthusiasm for the ideas buried in Castlevania. Succeeding neither as dark action comedy nor as horror would be a far less egregious thing, if it at any time made reference to its source material. But the only thing eerie about it so far is its apathy. A bit of Armitage does a decent favor, but not justice, to a game that I have always loved. I could probably find more promising plots on DeviantArt.