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 seem to be happening much.  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.  It’s tested; I made sure to have one of the latter with me when I first watched.  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 any given version of the stories.  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.  So far, so good.

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 (or 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.  There’s not a lot of the heavy flare typical of a Castlevania OST.  Upon closer inspection, an obligation in this age where it’s just too easy, the music sounds more remnants of the cut-scenes­ of the games rather than the major, high-energy themes.  It is creepy and dramatic, as it should be, and we get a pretty steady supply, plus a few credit tracks.  It’s hard not to miss the presence of panicky guitars and double-base, and music has always been aa huge part of the games, but the conversions from one medium to another may eventually excuse it.  Sometimes these things have to grow on a person.

There’s no doubt this is a teaser season.  No surprise either, considering the tantalizing nature of the first release.  Even if we pretend we don’t know how it works releasing a pilot season of a streamed series, the implications are all throughout the episodes that bigger things are coming.  Consider the opening credits:  They get cropped 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, by the way.

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 primary basis, was released in 1989.  Yet the sea change, 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 the gaps which the original game creators, or Bram Stoker, or even history itself regularly 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 cartoons and videogames are just for kids.

Sure, it’s possible some may feel prone 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.  And this also, 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 bit, you’re probably not ready for Castlevania.

But plenty of you are.  Give it a shot.  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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