REVIEW: Castlevania: S1 on Netflix

Castlevania: Season 1 on Netflix had the potential to speak only to the isolated group of enthusiasts that keep these games coming, and possibly piss them off.  Fortunately, that doesn’t really seem to be happening.

This series is full of the little quirks that fans of the original games love (except those hopelessly obstinate types).  As a bonus, however, it translates to those unfamiliar with the originals; or anyone who might consider themselves part of a steadily growing audience of “mature” animation. And as seems to be a necessity of the franchise, even though this is total Castlevania, it totally isn’t.

The story starts slow, with a large chunk of the first episode spent on humanizing Dracula. Then move into a very dehumanizing and antagonistic depiction of mankind, particularly the clergy.  Those lines between good and evil will be thoroughly smeared before this particular series reaches its end, as is the preference in these tales.  Other traditions of the Castlevania series that promptly reveal themselves include stylized violence becoming to both the franchise and anime in general, the seediest settings we can still relate to, the arts of goth, gimmickry, and dark humor, and, yes, relax, by the end you get a glimpse of one of the game legends, a Belmont.

The four-episode season proceeds to set the stage with exponential tact, laying out the land of Wallachia and peeks at the Belmonts’ history for those who don’t yet know it, so there’s no need to feel lost if you know the least about Castlevania in the room of people who sat you down to watch.  It’s going to be a rare person that doesn’t know of the character/historic notable, Dracula Vlad Ţepeş, borrowed in what almost seems a haphazardly chosen boss in the dawn of the Castlevania franchise just over 30 years ago.  That’s enough to get you by; the show spells out the rest, more or less (wink wink).

In that same 90ish minute span, there are those references, some modestly subtle, to the original games that fans tend to eat up when one artistic medium crosses over to another.   There’s also an assembling of the characters, some new or only alluded to in games, and some introduced with just enough a lag that it might give a knowing viewer the chance to flaunt their cleverness, if the re-rendering of old favorites doesn’t leave them too struck by the take.  Personally, I think there’s no need to fret.  The licenses taken seem considerate, and just wait; those little things that just don’t make sense in the “real” world of Castlevania, they might just explain themselves… in good time… maybe.

Oh, and there are monsters here:  weirdly warped yet familiar ones that can make both gamers and those who just like creatures that look cool smile alike… just a couple monsters, real quick, but another key element of the namesake’s appeal  that goes without neglect.

At first I’d thought I’d save the music as a complaint.  It’s always been a big part of the game, and there’s not a lot of the heavy flare typical of a Castlevania OST.  Rather than the high-energy themes you might find hiding in Guitar Hero, the music sounds more like the creepy, dramatic cut-scene­ scores of the games.  Considering the medium conversion, this is probably, in fact, appropriate.  While it’s hard not to miss the presence of panicky guitars, double-bass, and pipe organ, ultimately we can say it grows on you.

There’s no doubt this is a teaser season.  No surprise either, considering the tantalizing nature of its release.  The implications are all throughout the dialogue (forget the games) that bigger things are coming.  We even get an opening credit crop after the first episode.  This is hopefully a sign the creators are not into wasting time, though with such a short season one, perhaps they are into biding it.  It’s said the second season was signed the same day as the first’s release.

The Castlevania franchise has made an art of inspiring different versions of the same story over and over, and this version is an old one:  Dracula’s Curse, the game of the show’s plot, was released in 1989.  Yet since then the changes both in mediums and the expectations of an animated series allow for an entire reinvention of this story.   There’s enough to capture interest whether you’re unfamiliar, or you’re a fan of subtle throwbacks alongside modern tributes, or you just like gritty, violent little cartoons.  Take license with the gaps which the original game creators, or Bram Stoker, or even history itself neglected to fill, combined with a three-decade build-up of imaginings, and we’ve been given a series that has potential to snap at anyone still trying to act like such things are for kids.

Some may feel compelled to describe this as just another rendition of a standard that leaches off preexisting characters and plots, no doubt seen in too many series these days, but when considering what I mean by a “standard,” kindly keep in mind just what it is you are dealing with here.  Besides, if you’re not prepared to latch on and twist old traditions while taking in some fetching, freaky darkness and cheesing it up just a little, you’re probably not ready for Castlevania.

Plenty of you are.  Give it a shot.  Whatever you’re afraid of, you’ll come out alright at the very least.  After seeing this season, I rest assured these people know what they’re doing.

Fidgety for S2 (8 episodes this time right?  You sure you don’t wanna do 13?),

Mara

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