How Netflix's Castlevania anime crafted its bloodiest, scariest, most mind-blowing season yet
A man sits alone in an otherwise empty house. Sunlight shines through the trees outside, but there’s no one else around to share the beauty with. So the man picks some vegetables, catches a fish, pours some wine, and prepares himself a nice little dinner while occasionally using dolls to impersonate his absent friends and pretend he’s not totally alone.
Sounds like just another day in quarantine, eh? But it’s actually the opening scene of season 3 of Castlevania, which hit Netflix at the beginning of March (back before people were saying the word “pandemic” on a daily basis). The man in question is named Alucard, and he’s really only half-human; his father was Dracula, the greatest of all vampires.
Castlevania is based on Konami's long-running gothic fantasy videogame franchise of the same name. Alucard has starred in several installments, including the acclaimed 1997 PlayStation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But don't worry if you're not familiar with all that history — showrunner Warren Ellis certainly wasn't when he first accepted the task of adapting Castlevania for the screen. Ellis, well known among comic book fans as the writer of such critically-acclaimed classics as Planetary and Transmetropolitan, says his initial reaction to the offer was to immediately do some research to find out “what the hell Castlevania was.”
“I had no experience with the Castlevania games. So I did some reading, and what hit me was how close a lot of it was to the Hammer horror films that I grew up with,” Ellis tells EW. “Like Castlevania, they were largely set in Eastern Europe, largely about vampires and beasts, and as is only right and correct everybody spoke with an English accent no matter where they were said to be living. So I realized early on that Castlevania would be my Hammer horror film. That was my way into it.”
All you need to get into Castlevania is to be a fan of dark fantasy, or even just someone who thinks that the idea of having a magic swordfight with Dracula is really cool. (It is.) There's no other homework required, though if you are a fan of the games there's certainly pleasure to be had in seeing how various characters pop up and what allusions are made to greater mythology.
Season 3 is unique for both Castlevania fans and newcomers, however. Almost every Castlevania game features Dracula as the main antagonist, but the reason Alucard is having such a chill time social distancing is because that threat is now gone; he himself killed Dracula at the end of season 2. The vampire's fearsome castle, once capable of transporting anywhere in the world, lies broken and inert. So...now what?
“There’s that thing in real life where you’ve been very busy doing something, you’ve been thinking about it for a while, and now it’s concluded — you finished, you’ve done it! But then you literally don’t know what to do with yourself,” James Callis, who voices Alucard on the show, tells EW. “It was so much a part of your life that you’re slightly stranded afterwards, like, okay what do I do now? Being isolated is very revealing. There wasn’t Zoom at the time for Alucard, but the mind needs distractions, which we show with him talking to the made-up dolls of his friends at the beginning. The mind is such a curious thing, and too much time spent thinking about one’s self is actually not healthy. At some point, you’re not in control of your mind, and then that begins a descent into a kind of madness.”
“Descent into madness” is actually a great description of Castlevania season 3, and not just because of Alucard (who goes on to meet some very interesting travelers, but also finds himself slowly becoming more like his late father). Getting rid of the big bad boogeyman Dracula actually set the stage for Castlevania to produce its biggest, scariest, most mind-blowing season yet. Here’s how they did it.
Stop Dracula, save the world
When Ellis was first approached about adapting Castlevania, the plan was to make it a movie. The four-episode first season is an expansion of what the film would have been, introducing viewers to Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the grumpy last descendant of a famed vampire-hunting family, and Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), a nomadic wielder of elemental magic known as a "Speaker." Together, Trevor and Sypha found the coffin where Alucard was sleeping off his wounds from a previous fight with his father; after some mixed messaging, they eventually teamed up. Season 2 saw the trio pooling their resources to defeat Dracula (Graham McTavish) before his army of vampires could destroy humanity as revenge for the church burning Alucard's human mother at the stake.
Originally, Castlevania season 2 was also set for four episodes, but Ellis ended up requesting twice that amount from Netflix. Eight episodes gave him room to fit not just Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard delving through a lost library of forbidden knowledge to ascertain their enemy’s weakness, but also explorations of the fascinating interpersonal politics of Dracula’s army — from his scheming general Carmilla (Jaime Murray) to his mortal lieutenants Hector (Theo James) and Isaac (Adetokumboh M'Cormack), whose ability to create an unlimited supply of demonic foot soldiers for the vampires is tempered by their human weaknesses (nihilism and hero-worship, respectively). When the time came to write season 3, Ellis decided he needed even more episodes, and got 10. With Dracula gone, the world of Castlevania became more interesting than ever, and Ellis had no reason to hold back.
“It quickly became obvious to me that the power vacuum Dracula left was in many ways worse than Dracula himself being around,” Ellis says. “I had all these characters in play, but they all had very different motivations and goals. Immediately it became a more chaotic show, and a darker show. It’s a horror show anyway. For some reason people seem to forget that and think it’s a historical show or a fantasy show. It’s a horror show! Without Dracula things actually get worse, which is a nice horror note. It’s almost still about him because it’s the chaos that ensues when the great man of history is taken off the board: You’re left with the nightmare of whatever’s next.”
With more room to breathe, Castlevania season 3 has time for quieter moments like Alucard’s aforementioned solo time. His friends also got to relax. After moving on from the ruins of Dracula’s castle in search of new monsters to fight and people to save, Trevor and Sypha earn some romantic interludes.
“This relationship makes me so happy, I love these two together,” Armitage tells EW. “Sypha sees right into Trevor, she can press his buttons, make him laugh, get him riled up for a fight. They have been through a lot together, they have proved something to each other there is a mutual admiration and a bond. It’s love!"
Castlevania’s characters feel more real with each new season. Part of that is because we’re spending progressively more time with them each go-round and seeing more of their development. But Ellis also credits it to his close collaboration with the actors. Coming from comics and novels, it took effort for Ellis to adjust to writing dialogue suited to be performed out loud rather than read on the page. He sits in on recording sessions with actors and adjusts lines if they don’t work. He also seizes on interesting inflections in the actors’ performances to learn more about their characters.
“We did play around a little early on with little ‘mutterances’ under the breath, verbal tics like Trevor’s exasperated sigh which just emerged, and a delivery which has evolved from the writing,” Armitage says. “It’s organic, it works because we let it happen, and when I open the scripts and it leaps out at you I get very excited. Everyone is also very flexible in the recording. It’s great to read alongside each other and find that special something between the lines: The human quality that can’t be defined.”
To the Infinite Corridor — and beyond
Castlevania season 3 doesn’t just get us better acquainted with the characters, however. For one thing, it introduces plenty of new faces, some of whom only show up for a scene — such as FlysEyes (Gildart Jackson), a demonic night creature controlled by Isaac. In the span of his one scene, FlysEyes delivers an intense monologue about his past life as a Greek philosopher that is so tragic and horrifying it will stop you in your tracks. Then there are even more notable characters like Saint-Germain (Bill Nighy), a decadent European noble encountered by Trevor and Sypha in the town of Lindenfeld. Saint-Germain is traveling across the continent in search of something he calls the “Infinite Corridor.” It takes a couple of episodes to find out what he’s talking about, but the revelation of exactly what the Infinite Corridor is and does is a mind-blowing, visually-arresting sequence unlike anything that’s been seen in Castlevania before — or most anime, for that matter.
“That whole thing is utterly phenomenal,” says Callis, who says he’s become a full-on fan of the show even when Alucard is absent. “There’s something about the imagination and the execution of that idea. To be totally spellbound as an adult makes you realize this is really something else. It’s its own kind of cinematic universe with its own literature and style. It’s a real cool thing.”
Another of season 3’s most astounding sequences involves Isaac, who was transported to the other side of the world by Dracula at the end of season 2 in order to save his life. Now, Isaac wants to find his way back to Europe to get revenge on his lord’s betrayers. For that he needs a magic transportation mirror, and learns one is in the hands of a magician who has taken over an entire town. Isaac and his night creatures assault the magician’s tower, but find their path is blocked by the town’s mind-controlled citizens. Eventually, the wizard gets even more creative, and telekinetically lifts them all off the ground to form a gigantic floating sphere of human bodies. From there, the unnamed magician starts peeling off bodies a couple at a time to launch like missiles at the approaching Isaac. But Isaac has his own powers; occasionally, he’ll slice one of the bodies with his magic dagger as he dodges, transforming it into a night creature under his power before it even hits the ground. Ellis credits director Sam Deats with crafting such unforgettable action scenes.
“I set that thing up, but it was Sam who came up with the giant glowing orb of bodies,” Ellis says. “Sometimes I write an action sequence that is very specific, where I write down every action, and sometimes I’m just laying down the basic beats with a note, ‘Hey, Sam, it needs to be about three minutes. Go nuts.’ Then he and his team sit down and decide how they’re gonna go nuts, and you get a sequence like that. All credit to Sam.”
In the wake of Dracula’s death, Castlevania’s cast was scattered across the globe. By the time season 3 ends, they’ve all seen and experienced horrors that will prepare them for the inevitable conflagration when they all reunite.
“Everything in season 3 gets launched into the air. I have to bring it all down in season 4,” Ellis says. “Again, it might be one of those things where I just sit here and assume I won't get a season 5, so I will need to bring it to at least a partial conclusion, but the things I’ve got in the air can’t stay in the air for another season. I will have to assemble everything more carefully than I am otherwise used to, and I’ve got to bring it all in for a big landing.”