The question of what makes a Castlevania game tick will yield different responses from different people. Surveying this decades-old Konami franchise’s history demonstrates a lack of uniformity in play style, vision and quality. To some (myself included), the series was always at its strongest and most coherent in its earlier linear iterations, where any notions of a plot were nonexistent, and the play experience was defined by simple attacks and special-use items against the creatures of the night sprawled throughout the dregs of Transylvania. Others were more drawn to the complex and interconnected worlds of Symphony of the Night and its kin, while some younger players may have only cut their teeth on three-dimensional entries such as Lords of Shadow. Despite their myriad variations, each entry in this storied series displays an almost fetishistic love for pulse-driving action, for the macabre and for ancient gothic spires, stairways and mausoleums just dripping with dread.
The recent four-episode Netflix adaptation headed by popular comics writer Warren Ellis embodies this series’s slight identity crisis while also failing to embrace its core strengths. The show opens on a stunning view of Vlad Dracula Tepes’s castle, which a doctor-in-training named Lisa from the village of Lupu brazenly asserts her way into. She reveals herself to be in search of its owner’s rumored arcane scientific knowledge. From here, a flimsy inciting incident—after clearly delineating his lack of empathy or concern for the human race, Dracula invites her into his study and the two marry and become academic colleagues—leads to her being burnt at the stake after failing to conceal any and all paraphernalia of witchcraft and magic from the clergymen of the Wallachian city of Targoviste. A year and a handful of monotonous and repetitive dialogues later, Dracula summons a pogrom of demonic beasts from hell to punish the townsfolk for their transgression against him, murdering nearly everyone in Targoviste. The information that Lisa was murdered, that Dracula is not happy about it and that he has given the townsfolk an entire year to retreat from Targoviste before he destroys it is tediously reiterated by Dracula in this scene, nullifying the need for nearly the entirety of the episode’s twenty-three and a half minute runtime.
Ironic as it may be to belabor the specifics of this series’s premiere episode, this brief synopsis demonstrates the show’s desire to over-explain the known, all the while drawing out the process of getting to what really matters. That opening shot of the first game for the NES, where Simon Belmont struts with a goofy swagger that only a self-professed vampire hunter could muster up to the metallic gates of Dracula’s castle, communicates so much about this game and its world with so little. There’s simply no fluff here. Conversely, not a single monster is whipped by the show’s protagonist Trevor until three-quarters through its only season so far, and he never actually steps foot in a damn castle. Attempts at humanizing Dracula are absurd and become moot when his role here inevitably reverts itself back to typical antagonistic horror villain tropes.
I’ve this lingering feeling that even despite its many sequels, something about the full promise of the Castlevania series was never quite fulfilled, even with the beloved Symphony of the Night. While From Software’s Bloodborne may have taken Konami’s Stokerian torch and ran with it, with the Netflix adaptation Ellis and co. were given the reins to Castlevania to fully realize the idea of a dark, stygian world defined by gothic architecture and intense skirmishes with hordes of demonic nightmares. Instead, here we spend an exorbitant amount of time arguing about the social inequalities between those who are poor and marginalized and those clergy recognized as holy and just. These are noble ambitions by Ellis and co. indeed, but they fly in the face of the simple ideals which unify the best entries of the Castlevania universe; to say the writing of the classic games was ever more than mere window dressing at best would be charitable.
Despite admitting to never actually having played a Castlevania game, once in a while Ellis demonstrates that he gets what the commotion’s about. In one scene in the third episode “Labyrinth,” Trevor is being walked against his will to the town church to speak with its bishop. A black crow sits perched on a brutal Victorian steel fence which flanks the group’s sides and the twilight gloom juxtaposes against the eerie backgrounded papal institution. Anticipation for the impending encounter quietly builds through strong, inspired art direction and solid camerawork. While brief, we’re shown here how restraint in cinema can paint a scene in such a way that also echoes that imagined Castlevania ideal. Not a single smarmy one-liner or testicle joke or sheep-bestiality anecdote or useless swear word was necessary.
This Castlevania series is at its best when it wants more to be an adaptation of its source material than it does a milquetoast imitation of Game of Thrones. Even worse, it sometimes channels the puerile cutaway gag formula championed by Family Guy. In one scene, Trevor is questioned by an angry mob about the whereabouts of his compatriots, the historian clerics known as the Speakers, who they’ve come to murder. Trevor replies, “I’ve put them somewhere safe,” and we briefly hard cut to the catacombs below where the Speakers crowd around the corpse of a cyclops which Trevor previously slayed. A man nervously states, “I swear it just moved.” In a different context, this joke might have worked pretty well. In a vacuum, it’s a funny idea which is solidly executed upon. But when placed inside both the specific drama of this particular scene and within the wider context of Castlevania as a whole, it leaves a bad taste while feeling needlessly contrarian to the heart of this franchise.
A strong adaptation bends both to the whims of the medium it’s operating within and of its source material. It then manages to find common ground while also taking artistic liberties to forge its own path. Castlevania caters too hard to some of the more cynical aspects of modern prestige television, those that shows like Better Call Saul and Twin Peaks have already themselves deemed obsolete—all this while ultimately failing to channel the macabre, doom-and-gloom spirit of the original games. Sometimes Castlevania feels like it’s almost there, whereas other moments fall flat on their face. Dodgy production values make matters worse, with certain scenes being exquisitely animated and art designed while others simply do not pass muster. Its English voice dub, the default for American Netflix users, is often poor, and an uneven vocal mix frequently can make conversations feel stilted and one-sided. Little about this television adaptation works as well as it should. With a second eight-episode season already well into production, I can only hope that the team can find the time to learn firsthand what makes the games so special and beloved so that they might whip this thing into shape.