I hate vampires.
But for Netflix’s Castlevania, I’ll make an exception.
Spoiler warning for the show, by the way.
The story of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades and Alucard on a private crusade to topple Dracula, Lord of Vampires is grim and overly gory at times, but it manages to do what many shows about dark topics attempt but rarely succeed at – show troubled, almost unsavory people working towards a worthy and noble goal in a way that makes us like people we might otherwise not. While not without flaws, it is an excellent piece of entertainment.
Probably the strongest aspect of Castlevania is it’s villain. Dracula is brooding and dark, but he manages to come off as sympathetic rather than tiresome, a rare achievement. He has a deep seated hatred of humanity but he comes by it honestly. Too honestly, to be frank. It’s hard not to take his side of things, given what we see of the world around him. If there’s one misstep Castlevania makes in spinning it’s tale it’s that the world it presents seems to deserve Dracula far more than it deserves Trevor, Sypha and Alucard to save it. For that matter, with the way those three have been treated by the world at large, it’s a wonder they don’t join forces with Dracula and help destroy it.
This creates the biggest problem with Castlevania as a story. There’s no discernable reason for Dracula to be the way he is. Which is not to say there’s no reason for him to be a vengeful monster, but rather there’s no reason for him to possess so much humanity in the face of the world he lives in. It’s hard to tell where he got it from, or perhaps more accurately, where his wife, who he learned it from, got it from. Concepts like compassion and the value of human life are not natural, but rather truths that must be taught and preserved, yet the world of Castlevania gives only hints as to where such truths might be kept.
Now we could get more development of that in the promised season 3, but with Dracula now dead I’m not sure the show can keep up its high quality going forward.
Because, again, Dracula was what made Castlevania so great. His air of menace, his authority, his casual cruelty and his deep insight into the people around him propels him into the ranks of the best villains in the modern canon. His suicidal desire to destroy what sustains him is also easily understood after watching the tenderness between him and his wife and the brutality of the people who took her from him.
Sadly, the weakest point for Castlevania is the rest of its villains. Carmilla and Godbrand are terrible secondary villains, more one note caricatures of villainy than anything, and Carmilla (the one who survives) lacks the personal charisma and intellectual skill necessary to step into Dracula’s shoes and serve as the primary villain going forward. Isaac poses a human alternative, but while his sorcerers powers are impressive he lacks the vision and scope that made Dracula so terrifying – the very fact that he never set out to wipe out humanity without Dracula to push him along suggests he’s just not the villain the series needs. At least the story brought good heroes to bear.
The antipathy between Belmont, last of the monster hunters, and Alucard, son of the greatest monster, is fun to watch. Neither one of these men likes the other, they probably never will, but in a common cause they find that bizarre masculine bond that only other men who find themselves in the same boat truly grasp. Sypha is a more understated character, at once peacemaker between them and dragging them along towards worthy goals, coming up with plans and then trying not to die when they prove to be more dangerous than she anticipated. She’s a figure of balance in the narrative of the first two seasons, and that keeps her from standing out too much most of the time, but her presence is still welcome and necessary to keep the flavor of the series from turning too hard towards apathy or angst.
Fortunately all three heroes fully come in to their own in time for the final battle with Dracula, a jaw dropping ten minutes of pulse pounding action that takes our heroes and their nemesis from the top of Dracula’s castle to its deepest reaches as they pit their wits, weapons and teamwork against the inhuman might of the lord of vampires. The fight is jawdropping in its visuals and inventiveness, and the Castle in Castlevania is a place of wonder and beauty in its own right, but it’s the ending of the fight that really puts a capstone on all of it. Villains are destroyed by their contradictions – and Dracula could not love a woman of compassion and mercy while seeking to destroy all she loved in turn. For all the titanic physical battles that led to that point, Dracula is defeated when he realizes that truth, and not a moment before.
In the end Castlevania is a terribly mundane, straightforward story of the evils that men do, and how sometimes just aspiring to set them right can be enough to make a difference. And that can be a beautiful thing indeed.