The Demons Of Ignorance: Castlevania (Season One)
Lisa Tepes is tied to a pyre, attempting to reason with the priest who put her there. He is unmoved, and joins the townsfolk as they watch her scream and be consumed by flames. She was accused of witchcraft, and thus punished. But she was not a witch, nor even malevolent, simply a person the Church saw as an ideological threat. In time, the town and every human within miles will pay the price for her murder, suffer the wrath of Hell. For this woman was the wife of Vlad Tepes. Dracula himself.
Note: Though a lifelong fan of the Castlevania video game series from Konami, I never had the opportunity to play the third entry, upon which this first season of the Netflix adaptation is based. As such, I cannot comment upon what elements of the show originate from that source, and will be discussing it as a self contained work in this regard.
The release of the 1993 live action film Super Mario Bros. set loose a white buffalo in the world of filmmaking. Hunted ever since with varying interest, but ever elusive, was the prophesied good video game adaptation. While I personally think that there were somewhat acceptable attempts, the promise of a roundly successful work continued to be broken. Such was the regularity of the perceived or actual failure of these releases that there arose scores of analyses dedicated to identifying why there were no quality films based on a video game. Some considered the possibility that there could not be such a thing, given the inherent shift from an interactive medium to a passive one. Perhaps losing the element of interactivity in the process of adaptation might be the root problem? It turns out that much of this type of conjecture, fascinating though it may have been, was just that. Because nearly a quarter of a century after Super Mario Bros., and the many troubled attempts that proceeded it, the white buffalo was caught.
At the helm of the Netflix Castlevania series are director Sam Deats and writer Warren Ellis. Ellis, primarily a comic book writer, has previous experience in adapting pop culture properties into animation. His work on G.I. Joe: Resolute was a thrilling evolution of that franchise which, while edgier, did not betray its beloved source. With Castlevania, he accomplishes a similarly impressive feat. Though the horrors on display are perhaps more gory and explicit than those found in some of the games, the fundamental elements are respected. Protagonist Trevor Belmont (a charming and sardonic Richard Armitage) uses a whip as his primary weapon, just as do the heroes in the games. This eccentric choice partly reveals the unbalanced class dynamics at work in the world of the show. The Belmonts are shunned among the great houses, due to their dealings with the occult. Neither the Church nor populace care, or care to know, that these interactions have been in defense of mankind. It makes sense for one of them to use an unorthodox weapon, as they know more than the average person, and have trained to fight evils that others can't. The whip, and the skill with which Trevor uses it, is a product of stronger learning.
One significant, even titular element which I have long feared would be mishandled if adapted, is the physical portrayal of Dracula's castle itself. In the games it manifests as a structure so immense that it can absorb many hours of playtime. Full of enormous traps, monsters, supernatural foes of every conception, labyrinthine passageways, and endless, treacherous staircases, it's scale is made possible only through means beyond those of men. This towering work of Devil's architecture emits overwhelming dread - if one must face a being capable of constructing such a thing, what hope is there of defeating him? I was greatly relieved to see that the show's visual artists chose to honor this mountainous home of Dracula, in every way.
Dracula is one of the foremost portrayed fictional characters in all of film and television. Among the talented actors who have portrayed the count are Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Jack Palance and Gary Oldman. I would happily count Castlevania's Graham McTavish among this group. Like Lugosi's version, and Boris Karloff in The Mummy, McTavish commands a remarkable voice full of menace, allure , and intelligence. When a vision of Dracula's face appears, immense against the red sky, composed of swarming ravens, his words hold the appropriate power to match the image. In Bram Stokers original novel, Dracula, there is a touch of tragedy in the character, a loathing for his own parasitic nature, and the curse of immortality. One of the more stunning feats by Ellis is the degree to which the viewer can understand the character. We first meet him as his future wife enters his castle, where he is a predatory threat, circling her like a shark. But he is no beast, and immediately seizes on her intelligence. She does not look upon him as a monster, has not fallen prey to the common conception of him. She believes that he commands a higher scientific knowledge, and wants to learn from him. So Dracula is fascinated by this human who is not the mental weakling, typical of the species. It is a fascination that turns to love. When she is taken from him, murdered, we understand his motivation to attack the guilty village. We might not fully blame him.
In his wrath, Dracula unleashes the hosts of Hell itself, and here is where the knot of the story and its character's is tied. The demonic forces are indiscriminate in their attacks, laying waste to the land and many innocents therein. While we feel truth in the vampire's rage, it has expanded beyond reason. Trevor Belmont finds himself reluctantly caught up in the defense of a society that actively exiled his family, and fears his occult knowledge. And this relationship between people and knowledge is the true central theme of the show, one Ellis has examined before.
Planetary is a monumental masterpiece of comics, written by Ellis and illustrated by the great John Cassaday. Put succinctly, it is a meta narrative about the power of knowledge, its potential to enhance our existence and the danger to us all if it is left in the wrong hands. In Castlevania , the Church exercises authority by suppressing and denying knowledge, keeping the populace in the dark and demonizing any questions that might expose its lies. Lisa is burned for pursuing scientific means of healing which might make the Church seem obsolete, and the Belmont clan's actual ability to counter the supernatural evils of the world would undercut the Church's empty promise to do so. A group of monks, known as Speakers, who carry worldly wisdom through verbal legacy, are threatened and oppressed. The leaders of the Church are eventually besieged by the hordes of hell, blowback from their peddling of ignorance. In a priceless conversation with a priest, a demon viciously skewers their hubris and folly. Caught in the midst of this demonic maelstrom are the citizens, exposed to the lesson that what you don't know can truly hurt you. Ellis pragmatically casts the commoners as a malleable mass, loyal to the church because of social norms more than by personal corruption. It only takes a vocal challenge, a rebuke put forth by Trevor, to turn a number of them against it.
In its brief four episodes, Castlevania establishes a visual style flexible enough to convey both the supernaturally fantastic and a bleak grittiness. Superbly effective action sequences are sleek and versatile, striking with swift, unsparing violence. Ellis takes the economic storytelling of comics and translates its strengths perfectly to screen. The season engages, shocks, and excites before finishing on quite a cliffhanger. It's incredible to think that after so many years of underwhelming video game adaptations, we now have one that leaves us desperate for more.