Surprise Hit: Castlevania [Review]

Tonight’s the night. I am finally going to watch Pilgrimage on the big screen. Before that happens I want to get my review of Castlevania out of the way. I immediately watched it the night I returned from my holidays, a day after it had been published on Netflix. Since then, I have watched it a second time to record my responses.

Castlevania is my first foray into animation. I’ve never been a particular fan of the genre – probably because I come from an era where animation was mostly for toddlers. Sure, I loved the 1970s Japanese Heidiand Captain Future was my intro to the world of science fiction at age 8 😂. But I always preferred the make-believe created by actors and RL scenery to the obvious artificiality of animation. Likewise, I am also no a game head. I had a brief obsession with Anno 1602 but probably more for the vague history associations and the relative novelty of computer games like that in the late 1990s. Also, vampire stories have never been my interest. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula because it was on my college reading list in English Lit, but I never got into the sexual subtext of the genre. So we can safely say that I am not the target group for Castlevania.

And yet, I really enjoyed this short little episodic series, mainly because I was willing to see this kind of show as pure entertainment. I did not expect any message, any artistry, any merit – and was surprised to find all of that in Castlevania. That probably says more about my ignorance of the world of animation and/or computer games than about the quality of the show. Initially I felt that the prologue about Lisa and Dracula was slightly disjointed from the rest of the series, as well as formulaic (the innocence of a woman can make a bad man good), but hell, this is an entertainment show, not a socio-critical drama, so it set the scene well for what becomes the focus of the show: Wreaking havoc on Earth as a revenge for burning his wife at the stake, Dracula (voiced by Graham McTavish with relish and beautifully resonant timbre) sends his demons to Wallachia to destroy the Church.That pursuit is not going to be unviolent, but in terms of the anticipated high level of blood, guts and gore, the animation here works strongly in my favour, because even though there is no shortage of graphic violence, intestines and limbs ripped from bodies, and blood flowing (literally), the animation makes it easier to distance oneself and see the violence abstractly. Reluctantly, an extraordinary hero (see right) from a long line of demon-hunters steps up to the plate, aided by a young wise woman and an unlikely ally – Dracula’s son.

That’s basically the plot, spread over four short episodes in about 100 minutes running time. On the way, the show managed to entertain and fascinate me. It does so with a colourful animation which I found slightly robotic and jerky – not the smooth sort of computer-generated animation that has been developed over the last decade and that is much more life-like than Castlevania. But it gives the show a retro-feel that seems appropriate for a series that is based on a computer game from the late 80s and 90s, and which did not bother me once I had gotten into the flow of the show. What I really liked, however, good old middle-class, university-educated intellectual that I am…, were the backgrounds, the wider landscapes and city scapes that were nicely drawn, softer and which showed some artistry beyond the harshly outlined moving figurines. Particularly the title sequence about 7 minutes into episode 1 is stunning, with roughly sketched shapes turning into flames, fire and hellhounds. (I would have loved to see a whole series made in that style – and monochrome, too. It looked fantastic and had a distinct aesthetic that appealed to me.)

Also, surprisingly, Castlevania does not skimp on humour – which I had not expected as such for a show that had been labelled a gore-fest. But funny quips pop up here and there, from Lisa being apologetic about having eaten garlic prior to bumping into Dracula, to Trevor Belmont – being the master of the whip, eh, quip in the show. He is the reluctant hero, mostly concerned with getting another drink and avoiding any trouble. Not only does he get the cheap laughs for being allowed to swear profusely, he also has an acerbic wit (“floating vampire jesus”) and comments self-ironically (“reflexes like a cat”). It’s easy to identify with his reluctance to get involved, his frustration with being identified with his family. And of course with his fighting prowess, once he engages with the fight. In places, Trevor reminded me of John Porter from Strike Back, unwilling to get involved – but not strong enough to resist the need to serve justice – for instance when Trevor reluctantly saves the Elder Speaker from the priests.

But surely that reminder of John Porter is present all along, thanks to Richard Armitage’s great voice-work for Trevor Belmont. He endows Trevor with a breathy kind of experienced, hardened masculinity. Occasionally I felt that Armitage’s voice was not quite adequate for a character whom I perceived as relatively young, but as the series progressed and we learn more about Trevor’s experience and past, it came more in line with the sound of Armitage’s voice. The voice-acting was very believable, great modulation according to the mood and tone of the various scenes, especially in terms of Trevor slowly warming to the idea of going on the quest to destroy Dracula. As the show moves on, his voice takes on more of an edge, turns from a tired, drunken drawl into a sharp, clear-cut authoritarian voice. It’s that level of detail that has always characterised Armitage’s work – and that makes it so enjoyable to watch/hear. I found myself wishing for more words for Trevor to say. While I thought it was delightful to hear Armitage curse profusely – the first word he utters in the series is a decisively and precisely enunciated “shit” – I really loved it when he finally got his tongue around more dialogue, for instance in Trevor’s conversation with the Bishop (Matt Frewer) in episode 3. A pleasure to listen to that beautifully English enunciation and pronunciation.

The guiltiest pleasure, however, remains hearing Armitage’s voice savour the juiciness of some choice curses – I can’t help but get the impression that Armitage enjoyed throwing some vile language around. The gusto with which Trevor moans about having to access Gresit through a “shitpipe in pursuit of breakfast” after just having narrowly avoided a “fucking shitpot” thrown at him, almost sounds like some a joyfully aggressive letting-go of repressed language. Or maybe he is just acting. He’s pretty good at that…

 

While I can’t make any judgments on how faithful the show is to the source-material, and how it stands up in the world of dramatic computer game adaptations, I can certainly say that I really enjoyed watching Castlevania. It is quite a deviation from my usual fare, and as ever, I am indebted to Richard Armitage for widening my horizons again. This short season 1 of Castlevania has me panting for more – I want to know where Trevor is going next, how he will fare with his companions Sypha and Alucard, and what the makers of the show have in store for us in terms of artwork and plot. Whether it is by necessity or by design, but I love that he takes on such a variety of different projects. However familiar we may be with his voice work through voice-overs on ads and documentaries, or his audiobook narration/acting, I had always considered Armitage’s voice work as only “half the package”. But he truly brings this pen-and-pixel character to life, so much so that you can imagine him running on the spot in his recording booth for the chase scenes, or swinging an imaginary whip in his hand. You can say he’s made me fall in love with Trevor – and with Castlevania. Can’t wait for season 2.

18 thoughts on “Surprise Hit: Castlevania [Review]

  1. I loved it. Well- endowed indeed, in so many areas. I am sure you were referring to RA’s acting prowess and your suggestive proclivities took over by themselves. I have watched it at least five times. Trevor’s swashbuckling reluctant hero wisecracking through grim surrounding Is irresistible to me. Can’t wait for more.

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  2. I enjoyed it as well. It’s a very easy thing to watch several times, and each time, I see something more I like about the animation. The color palate, for one. Also, did you notice how when the characters walked, they moved a lot like avatars in a video game? A number of more knowledgeable reviewers commented on some of the video game tropes that Castlevania kept with, such as the market scene where Trevor talks to a lot of random people ( non-players, according to them) in order to get clues and info, as in a game. Nice review. Anxious to hear what you have to say about Pilgrimage.

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  3. When I’m writing this, you are seeing Pilgrimage, I’m curious about your impression! I love your review and I love dear Trevor, I was waiting for such a delightful character. I also think RA enjoyed this work, it would be amazing if they will make a live version, like the one for Assassins Creed, which I also enjoyed. As for the next adventures, I advise you to stay away from Castlevania Wiki 🙂

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  4. I loved Castlevania too! The old gamer in me woke up again. I have the 8-bit Nintendo and I’ve played similar games (ages ago), but not Castlevania. I need to check if I can get Dracula’s Curse somewhere 😀

    There was an interesting thing about Castlevania in the Den of Geek interview:
    “We were working to no picture, so it was really just a script and they’ve animated around the voices, but I really liked it. I thought it was so much fun and a little but anarchic. It’s brilliant and the animation is amazing.”

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    • I thought that bit of info, and RA’s reaction to it, was noteworthy, too, Riepu, and you are the first I’ve seen mention it. “Anarchic?” Is that RA’s understated way of saying, “That process drove me crazy!” Was it sort of like voicing a book–stand or sit in front of a microphone, read the words, work to create a visual in the listeners’ minds–but with control over only one character? Did he work with his scene partners, or did they each record on their own? Who told him to make the character snarky and sardonic, for example? Was there a director? Or was there direction in the script? Or did he just completely make that up out of his own reading/”motivations”/fantasy? So many questions! I want to know more about how this show was made!

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      • Yes, so many questions! I want to know more about the working process. We know, according to that interview, that RIchard and Graham did not work together even though they had one scene together. But how about the others? And I really want to know if all Trevor’s lines were straight from the script or was he able to improvise anything

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  5. Glad you enjoyed it too and looks like it delivers on some of our RA desires more than expected and certainly more than some on screen material. I know i should have waited until i saw Pilgrimage but i was too tempted. Good thing i can rewatch more times, we’ll see if i end up keeping the Netflix subscription or not.

    I was so not in the target audience for this. The Dracula stuff bores me and annoys me, i’ve heard too many ‘are you related in any way to Dracula?’ when people first hear my name and the like. And i’ve never been into video games, started and stopped at Tetris. However, animation has been creeping into my field of vision lately. Starting with the comics and story boarding 2 years before and by sheer coincidence i’m working on an animation show for kids at present! Wonderful to understand a bit more about the technical bits.

    I enjoyed this very much, in fact after the first attempt on a too tired night when i fell asleep in the Dracula bit i ended up watching it in one go and i can’t wait to watch again and enjoy some of the graphics in more detail and replay lines and such. Trevor is perfect hero material, a bit dark, a but damaged, a lot bad boy and deep down honest and a fighter for good.. awwwwww And he carries not just some sword but also a magic whip!!
    I have no clue re the original game so no idea how much he looks like the character there, but here he certainly looks good and interesting. Love the shaggy hair, nose and eyes 😉 The costume and crest are beautiful.
    I am a total sucker for RA’s voice work so just listening to his voice is such a pleasure and i agree with you, it sounded like he definitely relished every bad word and irony 🙂 He certainly made Trevor sound ‘badass’. I also liked the inflections, ie he sounded tired, bored and world weary at the beginning and then gradually wakes up. While he made me smile at the swear words he made me LOL in the moments of self irony and ironic self praise. He sounds a bit like we imagine Guy would have talked had he been able to speak his mind freely 😉 BUT he’s made Trevor sound considerably younger. I think he does sound masculine but young, fresh.

    I certainly hope we’ll get more and i will try not to spoil myself by looking. Er.. and i hope he stays the main character and Alucard does not take over. I like the triangle of unlikely heroes they form but i would like Trevor to stay the main character.
    Got a few more impressions about the animatics but will give this a post before something happens and it gets deleted 😉

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  6. On some of the technicalities, which i also would very much like to see confirmed (and this is as far as my limited understanding goes, anyone why has more knowledge please help!):
    – animation is very expensive, unlike live filming unless you have massive budgets you can’t just do more scenes and then edit and cut as every scene will require huge amount of work; certain things which are easy in live are very difficult in animation – like liquids, splashing people or making them wet realistically, walking on materials which reform easily such as snow or sand etc, much more challenging to draw than do 🙂
    – generally scripts are signed off before the animation begins although of course there is discussion and collaboration; because of the above reasons, ie you have to know in every detail what happens, including sounds and a lot of action without words before drawing begins;
    – you have to agree locations in advance as well as these need to be drawn and detailed, more detail – more cost as they will need to be repeated along each scene – ie castles, churches, towns which are specific, recurring locations in particular; this of course means people as well as they need to look/dress the same – which is why individual character looks are so key in animation;
    – some elements of the process would be different here since the video game must drive some of it and i don’t know how much input they had in the graphical elements and how much in the story lines – they certainly must have driven the scripts; no idea if dialogue lines would have been picked up from the game?
    – most common is to also do the voice over or chunks of it before animation has progressed as in many cases even though there might be a desired look the individual voices and characters that shine through the voices will influence the design in graphic greatly; ie i think it is very likely that Trevor has been made to look a bit like Armitage and Dracula like Graham or with hints of it; either way the idea is the look and movement and feel of the character has to match the voice;
    – the voice over is done individually, ie everyone on their own usually as it is a very creative process, a lot like reading a book, just with dialogue and sounds and tone and so on; ie a lot is down to the actors to model the script they are given and tone and so on;so the movement noises would be in there too though i suspect they may not need to be the actor himself in all cases ie some might have to be introduced later via sound effects but hopefully very little;
    – there is also separate sound who work with the composers to make sure certain effects are not over- emphasized by music plus sounds (knocking, explosions etc);
    – then there is also additional voice over to tweek after animation where actors would see the animatics to get a better idea of what they are doing but this would not be the bulk, only adjustments.
    I find it utterly fascinating as movements we take for granted in real life filming are so much more difficult in animated worlds 🙂 but then again you can defy gravity and make people float much easier 😉

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      • My pleasure, sorry was out of commission during the weekend. I am not sure how accurate this may be for Castelvania, but i guess some general considerations apply. For me at least Trevor does resemble Richard physically a bit but maybe it is wishful thinking 🙂 And i think the actual animation is beautiful and very detailed. What this man manages to do with just his voice and his imagination is simply amazing! 🙂

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  7. One obstacle for me with animated movies is the style which makes the characters look very “cute,” young and wide-eyed, even the males. This example seems to avoid that problem. Add the wonderful voices of Richard and Graham– it sounds quite a treat.

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  8. The story isn’t quite my thing but I loved how Richard voiced Trevor. I wouldn’t go for season 2 if Richard wasn’t in this. But he is in it and voices Trevor so extremely well that for him alone I am curious to see what happens next. 😊

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    • Same here. I am not a vampire fan at all, and neither do I like gore. But I like action, I like conflicted heroes, and with Richard weaving his voice magic… irresistible.

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