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Castlevania: Series 2 (15)

Starring:  Richard ArmitageGraham McTavishMatt Frewer 

Review: David Stephens

Video games are apparently prone to a heinous curse that prevents good live-action films and shows from being made. So animation is sometimes the place to look for cool adaptations. In fact “Resident Evil” and “Streetfighter” actually have “cartoon” features that beat most of their cinematic offerings. However game and genre fans alike praised the first season of the Netflix series “Castlevania”, a mature animated show loosely based on the cult Konami game franchise (“Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse” and “Symphony of the Night” to be precise). Containing plenty of blood and guts, the narrative introduced a mediaeval era and the nation of Wallachia. The near omnipotent vampire lord Vlad Dracula Tepes starts war against humanity and a corrupt church, in revenge for the death of his human wife. With the city of Gresit under siege by demonic forces, lapsed vampire-hunter Trevor Belmont had to sober up and recognise his destiny. Along with magic user Sypha Belnades, he awakened the half-human son of Dracula (Alucard… or Adrian to his friends… no, really) and they decided to join forces. A really good twist on the rich mythology of the many games, it surprised and delighted many, whose only real criticism was that the season ran to just 4 episodes and ended too soon. Happily for fans, Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix and runs to an extended 8 episodes. YGROY checks out the show, to see just how high the stakes are…

Immediately following the siege of Gresit, Trevor (Richard Armitage), Sypha (Alejandra Reynoso), and Alucard (James Callis) decide to travel to the ruined ancestral Belmont manor. They hope to find a way to defeat Dracula, but the relationship between Vampire-Hunter and the Half-Vampire is fragile to say the least. Meanwhile Dracula (Graham McTavish) skulks in his teleporting castle commanding his vampiric war council in attacks on human settlements. But his wards are tired of the mad lord’s rule and start to form rebellious factions of their own to oppose him, with the sneaky vampire countess Carmilla (Jaime Murray) leading the most treacherous group. There will be blood… 
When fans first heard of this Castlevania adaption, surely the expectation was that it would be a visual dungeon-crawl through Dracula’s castle with frequent “Boss-fights”. Season 1 proved to be wonderfully far from that and marked it as one of the better attempts to bring a much-admired game franchise to screens. The secret to that watchability comes from the way that the complicated storyline (which has been stretched over 25+ games, multiple consoles, and occasionally rebooted) has been distilled from its “Golden Age” setting, and manifested into the mediaeval gothic world of Wallachia, complete with the classic portrayal of a powerful Dracula. It would have been easy to simply focus on a single Belmont, and portray him as a chunky archetypical hero who quipped merrily away as he fights creatures from the games. But Trevor is brilliantly played by Armitage (who also held attention as Francis Dolarhyde in the “Hannibal” series) as a directionless and dry-humoured alcoholic, haunted by the legacy of his ancestors and the way people turned on his family. Previously he was shown as a reluctant hero to some, but an enormous asshole to many. But in this season he’s gradually transforming into someone who can relate to people again, with grudging respect for Alucard and a friendship (and maybe more?) with Sypha. Armitage has previously declared his love for the character and a desire to play him if a live-action film was ever made… and it shows in his vocals. 

Otherwise there are two other reasons why “Castlevania” has gained a cult following almost immediately and this has been enhanced during the latest run. Along with Armitage, the vocal talent is top-class. From McTavish’s multi-layered emotions as the Big D, to Murray’s snippy Carmilla, and Peter Stormare’s predictably goofy take on the Viking Vampire called Godbrand, they all sound great. And because the origin of the show is American, despite the traditional Anime stylings of the animation, the mouth movements actually match the performances. It’s a little thing, but it’s refreshing after so many Japanese dubbed versions. Another big plus is the writing by Warren Ellis, who crafted many of the Marvel animated series and storylines. He’s responsible for the more mature tone, which incorporates litres of blood being splashed vibrantly over the screen, as well as some of the most marvellously inappropriate swearing you’ll hear on a streaming service. One character says of Godbrand; “You’ve never met anything you didn’t immediately kill, fuck, or make a boat out of”. Trevor’s conversations with Alucard consist of childish retorts like “Eat shit and die”, and flipping the bird. And multiple F-bombs are uttered by pretty much every main character. 

Perhaps more surprisingly, Season 2 uses the extra episodes to round out and give depth to some of the “minor” characters. Foremost among these are Hector and Isaac, two humans who have allied themselves to Dracula after their treatment by their fellow men. A lot of time is given over to their motives and characters, with origin details dripped into the narrative. Whilst it is admirable and allows for some rich story-telling, it does mean that a lot of the runtime in early episodes are given over long sequences and monologues, where there’s not even a sniff of conflict or bloody mayhem for a long time. How you react to that is down to what you expect from the show, but it does mark the initial episodes as being quite slow-paced, with some sub-plots not building to satisfactory conclusions. However, it also leads to some remarkable sequences that border on brilliance. The climactic moment where our three protagonists fight against an elite vampire gang is quite frankly superb, perfectly underlined by a sweeping orchestral version of the Castlevania theme tune (“Vampire Killer”), and will make long-time gamers swoon with pleasure. Other nods to its Nintendo sources can be seen with Easter Eggs like Alucard’s floating swords, Trevor’s Morningstar whip, and the beaky demon that’s carried into battle… and far, far more. But this is never in an intrusive way. Season 2 also contains some emotional moments that are genuinely effective (the final scene alone will make sensitive viewers well-up for the character involved). For his part, Dracula is far from the vengeful demon as was shown previously. Now a tragic figure filled with ennui (although his hatred for humans remains), he often sits listlessly in front of his fireplace. But this makes later scenes all the more frantic and epic. It’s indicative of the commitment to atmosphere that despite some gorgeous visuals story-telling takes precedence, and the last episode consists of a very long epilogue with the surviving characters, which sets up Season 3 (for which a 10-episode run has just been confirmed). So if you want an imaginative take on a classic horror-game franchise, then this is easily the best option for you at the moment. Classy, sweary, and bloody. Roll on Season 3. 

“Castlevania” continues to display the strengths from the first run. There’s surprising character depth, sweary British humour, top-notch vocals, and some superb action sequences. Whilst some sub-plots go nowhere and the pace is still somewhat uneven, the show still verges on absolute brilliance at times and is great fun to watch, whether you’re a gamer or a gore-hound. Whip-smart. 
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