Every time there is a live-action adaptation of a video game, folks bring up the “video game curse” and debate whether it has been broken or if it still continues to affect movies and TV shows. The truth of the matter is that it has been broken several times, and the brilliant Castlevania Netflix series is a shining example of that. It had a perfect four-season run centered around Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades, Alucard, Isaac, Hector, Carmilla, Godbrand, Lenore, Morana, Striga, Dracula, and more. The show largely depicted vampires as tyrants and humans as rebels. But it would tinker with our understanding of morality by playing into certain stereotypes and then subverting them. The action was sublime, gory, and absolutely electric. It seemed like it would be tough to live up to the standards set by the show. However, the latest Netflix series, based on Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, has done it again and established a new bar for animated video game adaptations.
Clive Bradley and Kevin Kolde’s new animated series takes place in France during the French Revolution. Around 300 years have passed since the events of the final season of Castlevania. Our protagonist is Richter Belmont, a descendant of Trevor and Sypha, who hunts vampires, has latent magic powers, and partakes in the aforementioned revolution along with his cousin sister, Maria. Maria and her mother, Tera, have magical powers too, and while Tera’s capabilities are rather standard, Maria possesses the ability to conjure mystical animals from various realms. Now, they suspect that the rich are harboring vampires or have turned themselves into vampires and are living in the chateau to protect themselves from the mobs that are sending the privileged to the guillotine. Hence, they are trying to find a way to implicate them and then get rid of them. To do that, they need the Abbot’s help, as he has a large army of soldiers who fight in the name of God. There’s one little issue: much like the vampires and the elite, the Abbot isn’t exactly pro-revolution because he thinks it is an ungodly act. And as we all know, the enemy of the enemy is a friend.
Straight off the bat, I love how unsubtle Castlevania: Nocturne is by portraying the elite as vampires who go out at night and drain the blood of the common folk. And just to make the commentary more obvious, they include a scene where the vampires talk about how bored they are with drinking the blood of the peasants. That’s why they want the blood of someone who is a little elite (not as elite as them) and some form of royalty in their veins. If that doesn’t get under your skin, one of the blood-sucking villains is a literal plantation owner, i.e., the kind that owns slaves. If that doesn’t underscore the show’s themes, Bradley, Zodwa Nyoni, Temi Oh, and Testament introduce the primary villain of the show, Erzsebet Bathory, as a vampiric goddess who intends to rule over the world by plunging the planet into a permanent state of darkness. Yes, it can sound a little cliche. But the way the writers set up the characters and establish their will to live and rebel against any kind of oppression, those very cliche “end of the world” stakes start to feel very real. You start to relate to the desperation of a son, an elder brother, a daughter, a mother, a lover, and a survivor. And when you recognize the ruthlessness of the vampires as something that you’ve seen in the eyes of their real-life counterparts (i.e., the flag bearers of capitalism and fascism), you are taken over by the urge to join the revolution.
Much like Castlevania, Nocturne questions faith by making an abbey the hub of a lot of nefarious activities. Technically, a priest is supposed to be the messenger of God, as he conveys the emotions of the common folk to the almighty and then advises God’s followers according to God’s teachings. But one look at the history books will tell you that during the French Revolution, the Church was found to be guilty of corruption, and the revolutionaries started a movement to dechristianize France. Since the show involves vampires, the corruption of the abbey and the Abbot is way more visceral in nature, as he serves his vampiric overlords in a pretty sickening fashion, thereby knowingly putting the lives of the masses in danger. In doing so, the writers wonder whether there is anything godly about religion or if it is essentially a front for illegal activities and a way for evil people to avoid accountability because, as soon as you question the messenger of God, it can be interpreted as an attack on God. Additionally, the writers throw in a couple of twists to confuse your personal definitions of ethics, thereby making the viewing experience quite thought-provoking. I know it’s common knowledge, but I have to reiterate that just because a story is being told via the animated medium, it doesn’t mean the show (or movie) is for kids.
The work done by Sam Deats, Adam Deats, Saren Stone, Tam Lu, Powerhouse Animation, character designers, inbetweeners, background designers, prop designers, FX designers, storyboard artists, character layout artists, editors, animators, compositors, those in charge of lighting the shots, modelers, painters, and CGI artists is too good! There are so many moments of stillness where the characters just exist silently in a certain setting. You can see the light shift according to the mood of the scene. You can hear the environment shift according to what the characters are feeling. The attention-to-detail in terms of the expressions and the physicality of the characters and how they interact with each other in a space is exquisite. The designs of all the night creatures are jaw-dropping. Even though we’ve seen many monsters and many vampires, Castlevania: Nocturne still manages to make them fearful as well as melancholic. The action sequences are mind-blowing, especially when they become abstract by disregarding form and shape and focusing on the intensity and emotion of the fight sequences. If the last three episodes were played in theaters filled with Castlevania, the cheers would’ve been deafening; that’s how euphoric they are. It is a shame that we’ve to experience this in the cold emptiness of our rooms on our small screens. Stuff like this is made for the big screen so that you can take in the colors and the sound in their purest form.
The performances by the voice artists in Castlevania: Nocturne are great. Edward Bluemel switches effortlessly between the kind of attitude that’s synonymous with Belmont and his vulnerable side. Pixie Davies as the brave Marie is quite memorable, as her optimism and thirst for freedom are palpable. Thuso Mbedu injects Annette’s rebellious nature with a lot of passion. I love how she gets to give everyone a reality check as soon as they start lamenting about their past or what they’ve endured, because it pales in comparison to what she has faced. Sydney James Harcourt as the tragic and elegant Edouard is excellent. I was wondering if Harcourt had sung his own songs. Spoiler alert: I think he has because there are videos of him singing on YouTube. Natassja Kinski is pretty reserved as the secretive Tera, but when the time comes, she shows that she shouldn’t be taken lightly. Zahn McClarnon as the serpentine Olrox is the perfect blend of intimidating and seductive, and you never know which side of him you will get to see. His scenes with Aaron Neil are amazing. Richard Dormer is so good! He essays the faux gravitas of The Abbot perfectly. Franka Potente is hypnotic as the queen of vampires. However, my favorite out of all of them is Elarica Johnson as Drolta. Everything, from the character design to the voice acting, has swept me off my feet. Like the saying goes, if Drolta has millions of fans, I’m one of them. If Drolta has only one fan, I’m that fan. If Drolta has no fans, it means I’m dead.
In conclusion, Castlevania: Nocturne is a slam dunk of an entry in this vampire-infested, magical franchise. I was a little worried about how it’s going to turn out because spin-offs, animated or otherwise, have a bad reputation of fumbling the bag by trying too hard to cater to fan expectations while milking the series’ goodwill until it’s dry. But as soon as Clive Bradley, Kevin Kolde, and the rest of the team started to twist the multiple knives inserted into the hearts of the viewers, I knew that I was in for a ride. I love action sequences in animation. Yes, live-action fights have their own appeal. One can use CGI and VFX to broaden its horizons. However, when the same tools are used in the animated medium, the results are too wonderful to comprehend. That’s why I will say a prayer for all the artists who have worked for the show, hope that they’ve been paid properly, and wish that they receive the kind of love and respect that they deserve.