Friday, July 21, 2017

High Stakes: Netflix’s Castlevania

Trevor Belmont (voiced by Richard Armitage) in Netflix's Castlevania.

That video game adaptations are generally awful is pretty much a matter of public record. The bad – your Resident Evils, your Tomb Raiders, your Max Paynes – are too numerous to count, and the good – your Wreck-It Ralphs, your Scott Pilgrims, or even The Wizards – usually earn that distinction by not actually being adaptations of a specific game at all. I don’t need all the digits on a single hand to list the adaptations I genuinely like, and they all come with an asterisk anyway.

So the bar is, and has been, set very low for decades now. We’ve all been waiting for something to come along and raise it, demonstrating to a disbelieving non-gamer public that there’s rich fiction to be culled from these sources and reimagined in a cinematic context. I’m not saying that Netflix’s new Castlevania series, written by Warren Ellis, is that adaptation – but it’s damn close.

The Castlevania series of games, developed and published by Konami, started in 1986 with the release of the NES game called -- you guessed it -- Castlevania. It introduced the sidescrolling platforming action of the series, as well as its general spooky Halloween-themed tone and the simple storyline – centered on a family of vampire hunters called the Belmonts who hunt down the evil Dracula – that would eventually spiral outward into a complex lore. But this new animated series, developed by Frederator Studios and eventually supported by Powerhouse Animation Studios and Netflix, is more or less a direct adaptation of the third game in the series, 1989’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Right from the jump, it’s a worthier adaptation than most, given that it cleaves fairly closely to its (admittedly slim) source material. It’s a great example of a simple game premise fleshed out in interesting and appropriate ways for a new medium, supported by slick animation, excellent writing, and solid direction.

The protagonist, in the show as in the game, is Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the disgraced monster hunter sworn to defeat the forces of darkness. The antagonist is, of course, the famous count himself, here called Vlad Dracula Tepes (Graham McTavish), who swears vengeance on his native Wallachia when his human wife Lisa is burned at the stake by a craven and superstitious church. Dracula’s half-breed son, Alucard (read it backwards – go ahead, I’ll wait) attempts to stop him from unleashing hell’s legions on millions of innocents. But the father does not tolerate his son’s compassion for humankind and attacks him, leaving Alucard to convalesce while Dracula’s forces sweep nightly across the land, devastating all in their path, and Wallachia’s ruling church continues its campaign of corruption, greed, and prejudice. Complicating this horrid sociopolitical climate are The Speakers, a caste of peaceful scholars who wield powerful magic and pass the world’s history through a complex oral tradition, and are scapegoated by the Church for the bloody terror that befalls the poor and uneducated. It’s into this situation that the swarthy Belmont drunkenly staggers – the unwilling hero that Wallachia needs, and probably deserves. Ellis, in discussing the production of the show and his collaboration with Castlevania development mainstay Koji Igarashi, described it as “a Japanese transposition of the Hammer Horror films I grew up with and loved,” and I don’t think there’s a better way to encapsulate the appeal of the show.

Vlad Dracula Tepes (voiced by Graham McTavish) in Netflix's Castlevania.

But this would all be relatively standard genre fare if Castlevania’s writing, voice acting, and direction weren’t so consistently and surprisingly nuanced. McTavish makes a meal out of Dracula’s limited screen time, expressing both his seductive, dangerous charm and his bestial demonic rage (his most frequent and most awesome appearances are when his face, giant-sized and wreathed in flame, appears to bellow threats at quaking assemblies of humans). Armitage, for his part, is perfectly cast as the reluctant Belmont, subtly guiding the change in the character from flippant, aimless drunkard to angry, resentful do-gooder to confident, iron-hard hero. There’s plenty of fine supporting work (including a wonderfully slimy turn from Matt Frewer – Max Headroom himself! – as the Bishop who dooms Wallachia by burning Lisa Tepes), but it’s these complex performances that carry the show’s quick run.

The length of the series is an interesting point on its own: there are only four half-hour episodes, making Castlevania feel more like a single feature film than a true series. Its episodes don’t come across as self-contained narratives, and its cliffhanger ending – which caps off the series when it feels like the story is really just getting started – almost seems like a cheat. Turns out the explanation for this is as simple as you might expect: Ellis and his collaborators at Frederator originally envisioned the adaptation as a trilogy of direct-to-video films. After languishing in development hell, they were picked up by Netflix, who encouraged the “bingeable” episodic format – and renewed the show for a second eight-episode season, which will surely represent the other two “films” that were originally planned.Regardless, I think the fact that we might feel cheated by Castlevania’s length or format at all is an argument in favour of its quality: it’s a damn good show, and we’re thirsty for more.

If the show’s surprisingly deft storytelling weren’t enough to qualify it as a strong adaptation, then its animation and action would; there are clear influences from acclaimed anime sources like Cowboy Bebop and Berserk, and its adult-oriented tone allow it to indulge in the gratifying gore, teeth-clenching combat, and colourful language (at one point Belmont describes the Church as “snake-fuckingly crazy”) that most adaptations are forced to abandon in favour of attracting a wide audience. Castlevania feels uncompromised by such considerations, and free to explore its pitch-black subject matter without restraint. It’s in this freedom that the series finds its own voice, and confidently establishes itself as one of the finer video game adaptations yet made.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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