Staying alive in the year 1455 was not an easy task.
As if the lack of medical advances and the whims of deadly diseases weren’t enough, “Castlevania,” the latest Netflix animated series from writer Warren Ellis, adds on the persistent spectre of bloodthirsty hellbeasts bent on destroying all of humankind.
It’s the ideal example of the series attempting to tap into universal themes to amp up the frights originally mined in the Konami video game series. This onscreen world might hold a special place for those who’ve been immersed since its premiere in 1986, but as a work of episodic storytelling, it takes much of its four episodes to firmly establish the kind of series it will be moving forward. (“Castlevania” was renewed for Season 2 the morning Season 1 debuted.)
The pilot episode, as an entry point into this medieval world, thrusts audiences inside the castle of legendary mythical figure Dracula Vlad Tepes. Following the inquisitive curiosities of Lisa, a human interested in scientific discovery, the show teases an origin story of an intellectual partnership between immortal being and human that could sustain entire franchise.
Smash cut to Lisa, 20 years later, burning at the stake amidst cries of witchcraft and heresy from Church elders.
Lisa’s death incurs Dracula’s wrath and sets a cycle of sorrow, blame and manipulation into motion. We only see Dracula and Lisa share one conversation, but as we’re reminded many times over the course of the first season, theirs was a love worth inciting a supernatural holocaust over. Dracula taking revenge on the city for the burning of his beloved is a sweeping sequence of destruction, marked by columns of hellfire and hoards of beastly.
After his reign of terror (and rain of blood and viscera), Dracula largely disappears, but his dramatic effect over this town set adrift is considerable. If it seems like there’s nowhere to go after the true forces of evil thoroughly annihilate the wreckage of a city, Episode 2 would agree. Downshifting from full-scale horrors to a profane bar fight, Dracula’s preoccupation with wiping out humanity gives way to the antihero’s journey of Trevor Belmont.
Belmont (voiced by Richard Armitage) is a wandering mercenary, looking to redeem his family’s honor after it’s tarnished in the wake of the attacks on Gresit. In true medieval-adjacent fiction form, much of his lineage’s strife is downloaded in his grand pronouncements to strangers. Where the opening episode of “Castlevania” tells a story with the scope of its unleashed evil, a large chunk of the other three entries are literally told in the words of men.
That struggle to reconcile the sweeping and the personal is the show’s biggest growing pain. The bleak atmosphere that smothers most of the city’s human inhabitants is only offset by the tiny thrills of expanding out this universe’s relationship to magic and mythology. Through all manners of involuntary bodily functions, “Castlevania” indulges a very specific kind of grotesque norm that ensures that no character is safe from the ugliness of a world where a loving God is nowhere to be found.
But when it breaks from the generic anxieties of living in the dark ages, “Castlevania” finds life in the design of its otherworldly creatures. Winged, bat-like terrors with prehensile talons and a penchant for spilling blood, these nameless minions are as efficient as they are ruthless. One particular of the species, with glowing teeth and a wicked sense of logic, even delivers a philosophical treatise on the nature of truth before consuming his prey.
But in the human realm, these individuals’ great power lies in the myths they choose to keep alive. Though The Church is presented as a willful participant in the terrors that visit this town, “Castlevania” still affords its downtrodden populace the right to a redeemer, regardless of what plane of existence he/she/it may come from. When the show zeroes in on the power of that belief, it elevates Trevor and the people he’s fighting for from the realm of characters as two-dimensional as the animation style through which they’re delivered.
After spending half of its runtime in a grand preamble to the twin stories of Trevor and Dracula, as one-eyed figures of lore and an actual female character emerge to fill out both sides of the divide, “Castelvania” starts to show what may take those advancements further in the newly announced second season. Already marked by periodic sequences of balletic violence (a finger-chop here, a pitchfork garroting there), when Trevor and his targets become more than allegorical pawns in a battle between righteousness and evil, “Castlevania” will become more than a show that shares a video game’s name.
Among the voice performances, Richard Armitage brings a slight level of dry humor and fallen nobility to Trevor’s quest, a helpful shortcut to the redemption story he’s hurtling toward. But the real Season 1 standout is Matt Frewer, who savors the villainy of the wicked Bishop in every syllable. It’s an appropriately theatrical performance for a character defined by his ability to prey upon people’s fears and insecurities.
Gruesome, bloody, and (for most of its runtime) mostly devoid of hope, “Castlevania” doesn’t skimp on darkness. It never quite reaches the demented highs of its pillar-of-hellfire pilot, but by season’s end, there’s a clear mission statement for arriving at a slightly more optimistic future. Evil hasn’t completely enveloped these lands, but for four episodes, it definitely comes close.
“Castlevania” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.