I've never played a Castlevania game, but I'm obsessed with the Netflix anime
Netflix's long head start over newly launched streaming services like Peacock and Paramount+ gives it several advantages in the ongoing streaming wars, one of which is the luxury of branching out into multiple genres besides standard-issue prestige drama or high-quality sitcoms. In particular, Netflix has become an interesting home for anime. These days, the platform streams classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion alongside innovative new offerings like LaKeith Stanfield's African samurai show Yasuke. But one of the first original anime series to debut on Netflix back in 2017 was Castlevania, a Gothic vampire story based on Konami's video game franchise of the same name. Each of Castlevania's seasons has been better than the last, and the debut of the fourth and final one this week confirms that this is one of my favorite Netflix originals ever — despite the fact that I've still never even played a Castlevania game.
That experience (or lack thereof) is something I share with Warren Ellis, the prolific comic book writer who is the creator of the Castlevania adaptation and wrote every episode. Last year, Ellis told EW he found inspiration for the show in stories more familiar to him: "What hit me was how close a lot of it was to the Hammer horror films that I grew up with. 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."
[Note: A month after the EW interview linked above, Ellis was accused by more than 30 women of abusing his status in the comics industry to manipulate women and coerce them into romantic and sexual relationships. He issued an apology that said in part, "I have never consciously coerced, manipulated, or abused anyone, nor have I ever assaulted anybody. But I was ignorant of where I was operating from at a time I should have been clear and for that I accept 100% responsibility."]
Hammer's take on horror influenced the pop culture I grew up with; I learned their love of monster-filled mythology and colorful violence through descendants like Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics and Francis Ford Coppola's baroque version of Dracula. But the Castlevania anime also draws from modern touchstones in its own medium. The hero Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso) fights with elemental magic; her acrobatic leaps through the air, as she spears gigantic bats with icicles and engulfs demons in flames, gain extra power from the way they echo Avatar: The Last Airbender (for which Netflix reclaimed the streaming rights around this time last year, a comeback that became an early-pandemic hit).
Castlevania's character designs are inspired by artist Ayami Kojima's work on games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and the visual action is the realm of animation director Sam Deats, who has continued to hone his craft as the series has progressed. Each season has brought both a widening of story and an expansion of visual action. The four-episode first season, a reworking of the movie Castlevania was originally planned as, set the table and built up to a Marvel-style battle between rival heroes who eventually realized they were better off fighting alongside each other against greater foes.
Those heroes are Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), last scion of the world's foremost monster-hunting clan; the aforementioned Sypha, proud torchbearer of the nomadic tribe of scholar-magicians known as Speakers; and Alucard (James Callis), the half-human son of Dracula (Graham McTavish). This version of the iconic count isn't just one of the oldest and most powerful vampires in the world, he's also an accomplished sorcerer who can summon monsters or teleport his castle anywhere. Castlevania begins with Dracula declaring war against humankind for burning his human wife, Lisa (Emily Swallow), who just wanted to be a doctor in a medieval Europe ruled by oppressive patriarchy and a superstitious church.
Once those pieces were in place, season 2 doubled the length of its predecessor, though much of its time was taken up by bickering fights among Dracula's generals — both vampires like the scheming Carmilla (Jaime Murray) and misanthropic humans like the necromancers Hector (Theo James) and Isaac (Adetokumboh M'Cormack) — about how best to execute their war against humanity. It eventually built up to a three-way fight against Dracula that required the superstar combination of Trevor's whip, Sypha's magic, and Alucard's levitating sword (which kicks ass by the way).
With Dracula defeated, I assumed the show was over (since, I gather, that is how most Castlevania games end). Instead, it leveled up to its best incarnation. Without that depressed count looming over the board, characters were free to flourish and pursue their own aims. Exhausted by male egos, Carmilla teamed up with her three sisters to envision a new style of vampiric conquest. Banished to the other side of the world by Dracula's magic mirror, Isaac began raising an army of demons in the desert and partook in some horrifying conversations with a particularly philosophical fly monster. Alucard, alone in a ruined castle, reckoned with loneliness at the same moment many of us were entering quarantine in the real world.
These character developments segued perfectly into mind-blowing action sequences. Season 3 saw Deats surpass his previous work on the show with uniquely thrilling visuals like Isaac's demons taking on an evil wizard who used the entire population of a town as human shields and projectiles, or an ambushed Alucard finding an innovative solution to nighttime attackers, or Trevor and Sypha beating back the legions of Hell itself.
All these elements evolve further in season 4, which seems almost evenly split between thought-provoking character conversations and kinetic battles. But what I love most about season 4 is that the primary enemy the characters are fighting is not Dracula or even Carmilla, but the death-like curse of being trapped forever in boring tropes and outdated cliches.
Last month, I reviewed the new Mortal Kombat movie and bemoaned the continuing difficulty other mediums have in adapting the key traits of video games. Most adaptations seem to focus too much on the mythology of specific franchises and not enough on the intrinsic experience of actually playing a video game: fighting endless waves of enemies, slowly accumulating greater strength and tools, performing similar tasks over and over until you reach a transcendent endpoint (and even that isn't enough when some of us love certain games enough to keep replaying them again and again).
I've said my love of the Castlevania show doesn't come from the video games I never played but from its comfort with genre fiction, which often features similar tropes. Dracula is an all-time great character who has been and will be used over and over again (not least since Bram Stoker's original novel predates the corporate era of intellectual property and thus lives in the public domain), but even his stories can start to feel same-y after awhile: Vampire emerges and threatens human civilization according to the sexual anxieties of the time, yada yada, before ultimately being staked to death by enterprising heroes.
What I love most about Castlevania, especially in its final season, is how its characters are actively trying to break free of these kinds of stale conventions. The traveling court intellectual Saint-Germain (Bill Nighy) is literally searching for a portal to the so-called Infinite Corridor, which connects different dimensions across space and time. The sight of a character from a medieval fantasy story suddenly breaking through and finding himself in a steampunk world of floating machines and disconnected bookcases is brain-breaking in the best way. Look at all the possibilities out there!
Saint-Germain is a nerd, but even the fighters feel similarly restless. Isaac, my favorite character in the series, has battles left to fight in season 4, and I won't spoil them because they rock. But he comes to find endless conquest unsatisfying. As he realizes, "You can use a hammer to crack a skull or build a house." So why not start feeding demons delicious fruit instead of rotten carrion and see what happens? Maybe you'll create something new, something that was unforeseen.
Vampires don't much like change, though. They live their undead lives in opposition to it. What is a vampire but a being frozen in time, perpetuating their own youthful vigor forever by feeding on the lives of others? Well, vampires may be stuck in stasis, but our stories about them don't have to be — especially after a year in which we've all spent too much time in one place, surrounded by death. Isaac describes this feeling as the trap of the "eternal now," where "the best we can do is survive until dawn and do it all again."
"That's no way to live," he continues. "And I've discovered, to some surprise, that I am interested in living. I am interested in building a way to live."
Aren't we all?