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[TV Review] ‘Castlevania’ Season 1: Taste the Unevenness of Dracula

Castlevania: Season One” has finally arrived on Netflix. The inaugural animated run premiered on the streaming giant this past Friday, with the promise of a second season already in tow. The series is based upon the popular video game franchise by Konami, which features a multi-generational clan of monster hunters tasked with saving the world from Dracula and his forces of darkness. In other words, this material is right up my alley and I should be an easy mark for it.

Oh, if only that had held true.

There is a lot to love in this show, but just as much that left me scratching my head. Focusing on the positive first, the premise for this particular run is a dynamite one. Dracula, who has long since left the world of man behind for a life of seclusion in his castle, finds love in the form of a strong-headed human woman named Lisa. Together they explore the vast potential of science, while also reawakening Dracula’s humanity. Such bliss cannot last, however, and tragedy soon strikes. It seems that science has no place in the world just yet, so years later, Lisa is arrested by the Church and burnt at the stake for the crime of witchcraft.

Needless to say, Dracula is not pleased. Despite the pleadings of his half-vampire son, Alucard, who wants his father to honor his mother Lisa’s dying wishes to not seek vengeance, Dracula lays a curse upon the people of his land. He gives them a year to remove themselves and any traces of their presence from his realm or suffer the consequences. Naturally the Church scoffs at this and everyone carries on as though his words were nothing more than an empty threat. Big mistake.

A year later to the day, the vampire lord unleashes an army of night creatures upon the citizens of Wallachia. They are tasked with killing everyone that crosses their path, as well as laying waste to any and all human structures along the way. A hero is required to right this hellish wrong. A hero named Trevor Belmont.

That’s a fantastic set-up for a story! The villain is a humanized one whose grudge is very much understandable. The hero is your typical reluctant warrior, but one with an intriguing backstory. Both are a great combination and one only furthered by the fact that the villain’s primary target, the corrupt Church, is arguably the worst of the lot. After all, by their cruel actions, they have needlessly damned an entire nation. Were it not for the innocents dying in droves, they wouldn’t be worthy of saving.

There’s plenty of story here to cover a bloody 94 minute supernatural tale of vengeance, persecution, and retribution. Sadly, the above is mostly used as background story, with the series’ primary focus on Trevor running around and getting lectured by three different factions (the Church, the peasants, and a more esoteric religious sect). The animation is good, the premise is on point, and the series is no slouch in the voice cast department (i.e. Richard Armitage, Matt Frewer, Graham McTavish, etc.). None of that matters, however, when the writing brings forth a sleepy tale that is mostly comprised of arguments.

Castlevania is a property ripe for adaptation, but one that I’m not surprised has had a lot of trouble expanding beyond video games. It’s a visual feast of a franchise and one filled with incredible fantastical storytelling, which unfortunately renders it an expensive venture when it comes to crafting a live action adaptation. Animation is a great substitute in that regard, especially in the form of a Netflix series. On paper, this is perhaps the best possible direction to take an adaptation of Castlevania. After all, on Netflix, the show can be as graphic and wildly imaginative as it needs to be, without worrying about stunts, special effects, and triple digit budgets.

 

So what went wrong here? My chief problem with this series is that it does not play like a series at all. This feels like the feature-length pilot movie for a show that has been chopped up into four episodes and declared its own season. As a pilot movie, it works fairly well. The mid-section is glacially paced and focuses far too much on Trevor having arguments with different factions, but the opening episode is great and the finale is pretty entertaining as well. That’s not to say that the middle two are a wash, but they function as little more than an exposition-heavy second act. Such storytelling works fine in the middle of a film, but it can be a momentum killer on a TV series, where it plays less like necessary information and more like wheelspinning.

Looking into things, it seems that writer Warren Ellis actually previously penned a script for a cancelled DTV animated film adaptation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse about a decade back. Given that this series pulls from the same story, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ellis merely dusted off that old script and handed it off to producer Adi Shankar. That’s all good and fine, as it functions fairly well as a pilot movie. The problem is that it’s no longer a pilot, but an entire season. As a TV season, it’s pretty shoddy.

One wonders if “Castlevania” might have benefited from all parties involved waiting for the second season to be completed and the whole thing being tossed up as a 12-episode first season (or a pilot movie and then 8 actual episodes). I suspect that when the next batch arrives, the whole thing will flow a whole lot better. As it stands, it’s a crackerjack premise hampered by bad pacing and a somewhat limp cliffhanger ending.

I don’t want to be completely down on this, because as I said above, there’s a lot to love. I like Trevor, our disenchanted hero. I love what we see of Dracula, his backstory, and motivation. I find both Sypha and Alucard to be very interesting characters as well. I also love that, despite being filled with monsters and demons, the true evil on display here is a corrupt religious institution. The themes of religious persecution and prejudice that run through this tale are strong and ripe for further exploration. Despite being underwhelmed by the season as a whole, I’m on board for the next run.

Bottom line? “Castlevania: Season One” is a good 94 minute movie, but an incredibly uneven season. Fans will likely love it, but newcomers to the franchise should think of it as a film and watch it in one sitting. It’s far more digestible in that form.

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