S E R I E S – R E V I E W
The legend of Dracula has come a long way from Bram Stoker’s original horror, and with Castlevania, he solidified his place in the video game industry as the infamous prince of chaos. Netflix’s Castlevania offers a story based on the simple 2D game from the 1990s, popularising the tale in this era, depicting humanity’s unending cruelty, while incorporating the obvious violence and gore not meant for the fainthearted. Combining horror, mystery, supernatural with touches of sci-fi and comedy, Castlevania is a medieval fantasy epic that transcended all stereotypes to distinguish itself as an adaptation done well.
Extremism and ignorance
Warren Ellis’s unorthodox writing puts religion front and centre, although in an antagonistic way. The unjust murder of Dracula’s wife alludes to the historical Salem witch trials, which demonstrates humanity’s ignorance towards modernism and predisposition towards faith, which is constantly exploited by false promises of salvation.
The church acted as a major adversary against anything that stood in their way of achieving dominance over mankind. Their impact is also notable in ostracising the Belmont clan; a family dedicated to combat mankind’s threats. This exemplifies humanity’s everlasting fear of the unknown. Castlevania excellently explores this religious dogmatism and xenophobia which is both historical and existent in current society.
How to create villains
Many viewers tend to resonate more towards antagonists and Castlevania does no less to utilise that. Despite being the absolute agent of chaos, Dracula’s character undergoes a profound humanisation. The emphasis on his ideology poses concerns in contrast to what humans consider moral, and makes viewers more sympathetic to his actions. He planned to eliminate the entire human race. But we know vampires require human blood to survive, implying that his grand scheme is nothing but a giant suicide attempt.
The human “forgemasters” in Dracula’s court, Hector and Isaac are polar opposites. Hector is the representation of a gullible man-child who is easily persuaded. He was never sure of his actual purpose, until faced with dire circumstances. Justifiably, Hector was never a villain in the traditional sense and his fate repeatedly condemned him for his naivety. Isaac, however, was a mature person who sided his loyalty while accepting reality. We’ll get into his complex traits later on.
Ever had the experience when your favourite character is killed off or disappears, only to be replaced by a copycat? Carmilla is exactly that, with good reasons. Unlike Dracula, her ambitions were driven by a desire for power. She intended to herd and enslave humanity, whereas Dracula just wanted to eradicate them. In the last two seasons, we witness her rise from cynical spectator to a more prominent ruler; yet a classic backstabber like her contributes more to the story as a follower than a leader, making her arc quite tedious.
Morana and Striga are merely bystanders in Carmilla’s scheme, and despite agreeing with her, they remain reasonable till the end. Morana was the first to recognise Carmilla’s goal as unrealistic. Despite their hidden desire for freedom, both however continued to follow her out of sheer loyalty.
Lenore’s growing relationship with Hector from master-servant to associates played an essential role in her unlikely humanisation. However, the apparent growth at the start of Season 4 was almost too abrupt, which didn’t fully justify the dramatic cliffhanger of Season 3. Her bond with Hector could’ve been explored more to balance out her sudden personality shift.
Castlevania focuses its primary resources in refining these various antagonists, who not only captivate the viewers but also skillfully carry out the plot even when it deviates from the source material.
Isaac, the Sufi
A complex character like Isaac and his philosophy deserves a separate introduction. He occasionally mentions his devotion for Sufism, the mystical side of Islam, by reciting verses and quoting Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). As a former slave, his character serves as an antithesis to the church’s hegemonic mindset. At first, his ideas appeared to be a by-product of Dracula’s agenda. His awakening ultimately occurs when he realises he can no longer be a passive bystander in Dracula’s irrational story and must forge his own path.
A notable moment is his conversation with the demon in season 4, when it enquires about their purpose. The nature of night-creatures, according to it, is to destroy, like mindless tools. Isaac dismisses the idea by simply giving it a berry that reminds it of its past, arguing that night-creatures have no purpose. Any sentient being capable of showing emotions like a regular human, is not soulless and night-creatures are just souls absent from hell.
“One day hell will be emptied and its doors will rattle in the wind”: A hadith from Kanz al-Ummal, implies that hell is not eternal and God’s mercy would prevail. This was a fascinating allusion to the significance of compassion against injustice from an Islamic perspective. Isaac’s frequent recitation of this verse was a clear indication of his re-emergence as a fully awakened person of his own agency.
As much antagonist-centric the show is, it often also overlooks the protagonists. In season 2, when it gets more exciting in Dracula’s court with betrayals, allegiance and moral dilemmas, our protagonists’ arc remains fairly dull until the climax. Same can be said for season 3 and 4, where once again, Trevor and Sypha’s arcs continue to be repetitive. Alucard’s apparent transition in season 3 seemed to be hinting of an interesting scenario. However, in season 4, he returns to being a hero, rendering his previous character arc pointless. The dull side of the protagonists rendered half of season 3 bland, and while Season 4 does its best to compensate, it falls short of outshining the first two.
Are humans the real monsters?
Vampires require blood to survive, thus they prey on other species. But don’t humans harm other species as well? So, what makes them different from vampires? You see, for vampires, savagery is in their nature, whereas for humans, it’s a choice. What about Dracula? His battle was against injustice. In that sense, Dracula may be the most humane character of all, as he went against his nature. Humanity’s consciousness opens up a world of possibilities that can have both positive and negative impacts on the world.
The yin-yang concept in Taoism speaks of this duality of conscience, that everything contains the seed of its opposite. For instance, an ounce of goodness within Dracula stopped him from destroying the world and Alucard seemingly had the potential to shift to the dark side. Taoism states that light and dark are not opposites, but coexistent and relative to each other. This analogy is a reminder of how perspectives can alter in response to circumstances, and we must understand and accept both. This choice is our gift as humans and dictates whether we remain humans or succumb to our inner demons.
While many shows exploit sex as fan service, Castlevania goes beyond by incorporating it into character development. The show, like its fight scenes, disregards censorship and showcases the details quite graphically, which are vital to the plot. Trevor and Sypha’s post-coital scene of melancholy and peace serves as a physical depiction of Trevor’s healing process and indicates his shift to a compassionate individual. Morana and Striga’s relationship also functions as a positive and supporting one, among all the chaos. Alucard and Hector, however, are not in the same boat.
Alucard’s bisexuality stems from his wish to welcome all humans, whereas the betrayal by the two humans he gracefully accepted, sparked his disgust for humanity as a whole. For Hector, it was a progression of his naivety. The scene served as a betrayal of the solace he felt in Lenore, prompting his culminating growth. Both cases highlight the vulnerability that lies beneath intimacy, as well as how it frequently originates from pretence rather than passion. Castlevania explicitly includes this sinister aspect of intimacy to illustrate its point.
What makes Castlevania a solid adaptation? It would mainly be about respecting the source material. They conducted extensive research to recreate the ominous and explorable ambiance of the games in modern animation style. Secondly, they chose the appropriate persons for the job. The showrunner, Adi Shankar has stated his inspiration stems from Japanese animation such as Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter: D, as well as his extensive knowledge and admiration for the franchise and video games in general.
According to him, video-game adaptations always had a stigma, and most of them are cash-grabs as they’re aimed at a larger audience. Films are a more passive kind of entertainment, lacking the interactivity of video games. Instead of focusing on essential features like editing, sound mixing, and acting/voice-casting, filmmakers focus more on choreography and action to reproduce the experience of playing games, resulting in weakened products, which is why most showrunners are hesitant to tackle the genre.
Castlevania deserves appreciation for opting for animation over live-action, which allowed for numerous possibilities that couldn’t be achieved in live-action. The animation also does a fantastic job of defining that with stunning character designs and frenzies of whips and spells, vibrantly animated with exuberant colour grading and consistent soundtracks. The battle sequences are the show’s most defining feature, with adrenaline-fuelled gore-filled choreography that makes viewers feel as if they were inside the world.
Shankar defines Castlevania as a show created by a fan for fans, emphasising that he values the fans above all else. Netflix also blatantly overspent on the voice cast. The ensemble cast, including Graham MacTavish’s ferocious Dracula, Richard Armitage’s grumpy Trevor, and James Callis’s reticent Alucard, and few others undoubtedly did honour to an incredible troupe of characters. All these create an authentic experience while allowing us to perceive the characters’ personalities and connect to them in multiple ways. The series starts in a perfect way that’s not only a nostalgic ride for the gamers, but also lets those with no previous knowledge of the franchise enjoy the show to the fullest.
Castlevania may have slight flaws, but remains a landmark in both the film and video-game industries, sparking the occurrence of a near-perfect amalgamation of the two in this period of pop cultural upheaval. It emphasises the importance of putting fans ahead of business with adequate care for the endeavour. Altogether, Netflix’s Castlevania is a wonderful journey of friendship, love, trust, and betrayals, as well as a plunge into an age-old classic legend.
With all that said, you should definitely spend your afternoon watching this. Oh, let me guess. You are gonna skip this one? Why would anyone do that? Hmm, would you do that?
Abdullah Sami is just another average procrastinator immersed in a delusional utopia, who enjoys squandering away his precious time after pointless endeavours.