I went into the new Castlevania series on Netflix with my doubts, but I came away from the first season impressed and hungry for more. Warren Ellis and his team have found the right balance between the video game's lore, violence, and tone to produce a series faithful to the games that also manages to humanize Dracula (no pun intended; it's a metaphorical humanization and not literal) and cast some insight on just why Dracula and the Belmonts are locked in an eternal stalemate. Spoilers ahead!
The first season consists of four episodes of around twenty-five minutes each. That's not a lot of time and the show spends its first episode laying out the premise in an isolated storyline. It's almost like a prologue. "Witchbottle" borrows heavily from Dracula's backstory in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as it shows us the first meeting between Dracula and a local healer, Lisa. The vampire has a reputation for possessing knowledge, and it's that hunger for knowledge that has brought Lisa to his doorstep. The two have instant chemistry and she helps to bring the recluse back into the world of man. Then the story jumps ahead twenty years to show the Church burning Lisa at the stake as a witch for consorting with Satan. Their proof? She believes in science rather than religious superstition. Also, she's now Dracula's wife. Her death sends Dracula into a roaring rampage of revenge and he spends a year summoning his unholy dark army of the night to lay siege to the town that murdered his beloved. In just twenty minutes, Castlevania peels back the layers hinted at in the games that while Dracula is a villain, he is not the true antagonist here. The Church and its corrupt clergy are to blame for setting all of these events in motion, and ultimately the remaining three episodes focus on how the Church deals with the onslaught of Dracula's army of monsters.
We don't really meet the local Belmont until the second episode, "Necropolis". Opening with a bar fight between Trevor Belmont and the local drunken trash, we learn that the Belmont family has been cast out, hunted, killed, and excommunicated by what seems to be every village in the land. The family has a reputation for fighting Dracula, and rather than see the Belmonts as heroes, they blame them for causing mayhem wherever they go. Once again, the Church hides behind superstition and a flawed, self-serving interpretation of what God wants as an excuse to paint the Belmonts with the same brush as Dracula. I was already feeling sympathy for Dracula heading into this episode after losing Lisa, but learning that Trevor and his kin have been treated terribly by the Church as well has me believing that Dracula and Trevor are both caught in the middle of the Church's war against science and enlightenment, and I'm left wondering if they will reluctantly team up before the series ends to confront their shared enemy.
The third episode, "Labyrinth", borrows heavily from Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse as it introduces us to Sypha Belnades, a magician who commands spells of fire and ice. Trevor encounters her on a mission to retrieve what he thinks is the dead body of a local boy, but instead finds his target to be a living woman. True to the game, Sypha is introduced as a statue guarded by a cyclops, and Trevor must defeat the stone-eyed beast to restore her to life. This leads into the season finale, "Monument", in which the pair search for a legendary sleeping warrior destined to defeat Dracula, and instead they find Dracula's son, Alucard. Once again riffing on Dracula's Curse, Trevor and Alucard fight and, in the end, the newly formed trio vow to hunt down Dracula together.
Castlevania riffs on many elements from the Konami video game series. I didn't spot anyone eating wall meat, but I was delighted to see Trevor wielding his whip in creative ways, an axe thrown in a spinning arc, familiar costumes based on character artwork, a rapid fire stream of thrown daggers, and monsters that explode in a blast of goo when whipped ("It's consecrated," Trevor explains when asked about why his whip makes monsters explode, and that's all we need to know about that). My only disappointment is that I did not notice any of the games' iconic music.
Despite being animated, this series is not for children or the squeamish. As you would expect from a story about dangerous monsters, blood and gore are everywhere. Characters are maimed, stabbed, and lose body parts while fighting. Dead bodies are dumped into a mass grave. Dracula's beasts tear people apart, revealing a rain of organs. The bar fight scene in the second episode features dirty fighting, leading to Trevor asking his assailants to please leave his testicles alone (and that seemingly throwaway moment pays off in the finale).
Season one of Castlevania was an enjoyable hour of action and storytelling. Fans of the video game must check it out, but newcomers to the franchise should find that exposition provides any needed information. I even wonder if someone ignorant of Castlevania lore may enjoy it more, as I saw the major twists coming because of my experience with the video games. Castlevania deeply respects the source material and is on track to be one of the better adaptations out there. I'm eager to see what happens next.