Trevor Belmont’s main concern once the sun goes down is getting full and drunk enough to comfortably sleep outside. At least that’s how he, our reluctant hero, starts the four-part Netflix miniseries Castlevania, released Friday and based on the Konami video game franchise of the same name.
I confess to never having played any of the Castlevania games. But I have a few friends who did, and Google is free to use, so I can tell you that the Netflix adaptation of Castlevania is reasonably faithful to the plot of the third installment, Dracula’s Curse, even if it’s something of a departure from the spirit of the games. I was told there would be speed metal. (There was none.) I was also told that more of the story would take place in Castlevania, Dracula’s castle. (It didn’t.) As I understand them, the basic narrative assumptions of the Castlevania video game series are like that of any other side-scrolling RPG with whirring MIDI music. Dracula pits himself against humanity; Dracula begins wiping out humanity; Dracula is thwarted by the good guys; Dracula dies. You see him lose and know he’ll be back in the next installment, just as hammy and motivated by revenge as before.
That barebones structure gives Castlevania — the show — space to shade in Dracula Vlad Tepes, explaining his hatred of mankind. The first episode introduces him to Lisa, a woman of science who just wants to make the world better by making it less ignorant. Within two minutes of meeting Dracula, she’s already interrogated his reclusive lifestyle and general inhospitality: She walked through squalls of bats and a field of skeletons on pikes to get to Dracula’s front door, so the least he could do was take her coat and offer her a drink. He shows her his immortal science lab after that, and the two eventually get married. As meet-cutes go, it’s convenient, but enjoyable all the same.
Castlevania’s first season feels like a two-hour cut scene before the button-mashing starts. As such, the characters’ roles in each others’ lives and in the larger plot are hastily, but satisfyingly rendered — much like in a video game. It’s set sometime before the Enlightenment in the vaguely Western European country of Wallachia, which is controlled by a corrupt-to-the-point-of-delusional Catholicish church. The bishop burns Dracula’s wife at the stake for using beakers, so Dracula releases an army of demons to wipe humanity from the face of the earth. But the demons come at night, and the priests — refusing to entertain that this genocidal massacre could be their fault — roam the streets persecuting the “tainted” denizens of Wallachia (the nonreligious ones) during the day. With staves and knives and bows and arrows and all sorts of weapons men of the cloth shouldn’t have.
This is where Trevor Belmont comes in. He’s a (handsome, grizzled) monster hunter, or was, before his family was excommunicated and presumably whittled down to its last son by the church. Therefore he’s also bitter, full of insults, and unaffected by piles of half-eaten bodies piled in the streets and intestines wrapped around tentpoles in the town market. Or demons carrying off dead babies in their jaws. It’s worth noting that the gore in this show is super gratuitous, just like its creator, Adi Shankar, said it would be two years ago. The violence is flashy and over the top, and it’s not always easy to see what the point of it is beyond grossing you out, but sometimes it does add color to a character’s beliefs. It also mitigates whatever pity you felt for Dracula after hearing his wife’s cries in the pilot.
But then Belmont saves one person, and then another, and eventually, once enough concerned onlookers have told him not to be so cynical and apathetic, he stops being cynical and apathetic. That’s another thing that makes this series so much like an RPG — wholesale changes to personal motivations happen abruptly, with a few turns of phrase. Belmont also never seems to be in any real danger, even when fighting an entire mob of angry villagers and clergymen alone.
This doesn’t mean that Castlevania isn’t a perfectly good series to while away the few hours between running errands and drinking on a Saturday with. The animation is kinetic and lively — like if the best fights in Naruto were crafted with slightly older teenagers in mind — which, coupled with the whip Belmont carries for whatever reason, makes for some sumptuous fight choreography. The best of these sequences are the ones when Belmont is fully engaged, but the most entertaining ones are when he’s either drunk or trying to sober up. For instance, there’s a climactic, exhausting final battle in a high-ceilinged throne room that makes thrilling use of the space. But there’s another in an alleyway that’s genuinely funny, and a dustup in a bar that’s even funnier than that. (Afterward, he stumbles out into the street and throws up. The show nods toward Game of Thrones in more ways than just the one a Redditor sniffed out earlier this week.)
Wrapping up in just four 20-plus-minute episodes, Castlevania ends just as it feels like Shankar and Co. have finished setting the table for a promising adventure. Netflix has already ordered eight more episodes. I look forward to seeing the actual gameplay.