Netflix's Castlevania: The Retronauts review
An effective retelling of the games' story that utterly fails to capture their sense of fun.
I don't know if there's such a thing as a nu-metal Beatles cover band, but if there were, they would probably perform music that sounds a lot like the way Netflix's new Castlevania animated series plays: Loud, vulgar, cool, and tragically lacking in joy.
There's no question that this adaptation of Castlevania turned out vastly better than it had any right to. Granted, the animation looks flimsy at times, with awkwardly modeled hand-drawn characters not quite occupying spaces built of flat, unconvincing computer renders. Worse, the script quality veers wildly between reasonably nuanced character studies and something more akin to fan fiction written by a teenager who just learned the word "fuck." Yet in those occasional moments when Castlevania finds its voice, the cartoon more than does justice to the classic video game source material.
The problem stems from the fact that those best moments come few and far between, stretched parsimoniously across the first season's 100-minute running time. The show starts strong and has a few brilliant moments along the way, but the rest of the time you'd have a difficult time recognizing this as an adaptation of a video game based on the rogues gallery of classic Universal and Hammer horror films. Therein lies my greatest frustration with Castlevania as interpreted by Netflix and writer Warren Ellis: An unshakeable sense of contempt for the goofiness that ran through every Castlevania game, at least up until Lords of Shadow. To Ellis's credit, there's less desperate edgelord posturing in the Netflix rendition of the games than in Lords, but this material still falls a long way from being the "microcosmic Game of Thrones set in Transylvania" it clearly aspires to be.
The strongest moments of Castlevania turn out to be the ones adapted directly from the games. The overall plot retells the quest of Castlevania III, with exiled vampire hunter Trevor Belmont teaming up with mystical companions as he fights his way through a besieged town en route to a showdown with Dracula, but the story draws on the series' larger mythos as well. It leans heavily into Alucard's Succubus-induced nightmare flashback in Symphony of the Night, with the opening moments of the first episode establishing Dracula's motives by setting up his relationship with a woman named Lisa before cutting to her being burned at the stake for heresy. While we see little of Dracula beyond the first episode, Trevor will definitely be facing off against the philosophical, monologuing version of the character seen in Rondo of Blood and Symphony in the series' inevitable showdown.
Likewise, the show's best action set pieces draw on Castlevania III's scenarios as well. Trevor's battle with a towering cyclops in the catacombs beneath the city ends with the rescue of Sypha Belnades, who has been turned to stone by the monster and — yes — turns out to be a woman beneath those sorcerous robes. It's a marvelous interpretation of the game's second boss battle. The two later attempt to navigate an intimidating rendition of the games' trademark clock tower environment, which the show mixes up a bit. Here, the gears and cogwheels are part of a mysterious underground labyrinth, the machinery collapses during their journey rather than after, and the combatant who waits at the end of the gauntlet isn't pirate-thief Grant Danasty this time around. These beats feel faithful to the source material but still switch things up enough to remain interesting.
Where Castlevania stumbles is in Ellis's attempt to flesh out the world surrounding the game. I referenced Game of Thrones, and that isn't a frivolous comparison. The smallfolk cry out against the thoughtlessness of the noble families. Dracula's actions are set into motion by a sect of religious zealots who have subsumed the local clergy with violence and general thuggery, seeking social and political dominance through subversion and occasional shows of force. And if you were to take the tavern scene that bridges the first and second episodes and replace Trevor Belmont with Sandor Clegane, you'd basically have a plagiarism lawsuit on your hands. And, hey, I get it: Game of Thrones casts a long shadow over mystic medieval fantasy works. On top of that, it's one of the most successful television adaptations ever to be made of a work from another medium. Who wouldn't want to use that as their basis for similar work?
I'm not sure that adults-only HBO fare is necessarily the best model for a Castlevania adaptation, though. This is a series of games inspired by corny monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s; the original NES game ended with a fake credit roll riffing on the names of classic horror actors (e.g. "Christopher Bee"). The franchise draws heavily on myth and legend, but it also venerates anime, Victorian-era novels, and schlocky Hollywood material like Raiders of the Lost Ark and stop-motion Harryhausen monsters. Ultimately your task in nearly every game involves taking down Count Dracula, who leers at you while clad in formal evening attire and whose best pal is the Grim Reaper. Even when Dracula quotes scripture at you, the games maintain a light touch.
There's none of that here. For one thing, the only monsters recognizable from the games are the aforementioned cyclops and Dracula himself; otherwise, Dracula's legions consist of generic-looking demons. There are no heavily armored Axe Knights, no flying Medusa heads, no deranged hopping Fleamen. Castlevania games punctuate their atmospheric horror with pops of bright color and monsters that look and move like something from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The only vivid color in this series' desaturated palette is the red of blood, which flows often from brutal acts of violence. One of my favorite little details in any Castlevania game is the giant floating eyeball that follows you in the distance, peeping through windows, as you advance through the Marble Gallery in Symphony of the Night. It's a fun and harmless bit of atmosphere. Castlevania on Netflix has a flying eyeball, too: It belongs to a rogue priest right up until the moment that Trevor gruesomely whips it from his skull. The camera sets its focus and lingers on this bit of viscera for no real reason beyond shock value.
Really, Trevor defines and embodies my frustrations with this vision of Castlevania. He's meant to be a weary traveler, a rakish but likable hero soured on the world by his family's unjust excommunication years ago. Unfortunately, the "likable" part doesn't really come through; he's callow, brutish, and generally unpleasant. I've seen a lot of arguments about whether or not Castlevania (which was neither written nor animated in Japan) should be considered anime, but Trevor is basically the ultimate anime cliché: An attempt to roll Vash the Stampede, Spike Spiegel, Himura Kenshin, and a dozen other disillusioned badasses into a whip-cracking bundle of muscle. Warren Ellis overshot the mark and made him a little too callow, a bit more unlikable than the material can support. Meanwhile, the underlying whimsy of the Castlevania games — these are games called "Castlevania," for crying out loud — has been supplanted by thudding, juvenile "jokes" that mostly revolve around groin kicks and bestiality. The constant crotch abuse does at least lead up to an amusing payoff during Trevor's rough-and-tumble encounter with Alucard, but for the most part, the alleged comedy here feels squarely aimed at 13-year-olds.
And, hey, maybe that's fair. I was 13 when I first discovered Castlevania; perhaps this is simply continuing some sort of natural cycle. The extraordinarily graphic violence and crude language on display in this series would suggest Netflix hopes to attract an older audience, however; producer Adi Shankar even describes it as "R-rated." It could simply be that this dissonance — adult-oriented content loaded up with juvenile material — is the inevitable result of bringing Ellis on board. Ellis has written some great comic books in his time, but he's also guilty of feeding the try-hard mentality that often plagues the medium (comics ain't just for kids anymore!) and helped create the subculture that has given us things like Zack Snyder's miserable cinematic excursions into the DC universe. Castlevania often feels like it's aiming for Game of Thrones but frequently lands closer to Batman Vs. Superman, with its plodding tone, resentful protagonist, and blood-soaked interpretation of lightweight pop culture confections.
Still, even though Castlevania misses as often as it hits, its best moments feel perfectly on target. If nothing else, they guarantee I'll give the second season of the series a shot once it hits Netflix. I don't hold out much hope that season two will tone down the overeager sensationalism or make better use of the Castlevania bestiary (or include even hints of the games' world-class soundtracks, whose total absence in favor of generic "epic" film orchestration throughout season one might actually be the show's greatest creative misstep). But if Ellis can continue to build on the good here — the nuanced take on Dracula, the excellent interpretations of Trevor's companions, the wonderful adaptation of game set pieces — that would be reason enough for fans of the games to grit their teeth through the more insipid moments of try-hard pandering.
Castlevania is one of the strongest game-to-film adaptations ever... though that says more about the nature of adaptations than it does about Castlevania's quality. The show's universal plaudit ("I expected much worse") isn't exactly high praise, but it still sets this show well above most of its peers.