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 Heidi, and 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.