Castlevania (2017) Review


If you review media long enough there will inevitably come a point where your opinion will drastically differ from the general critical consensus. Well, after watching Castlevania I found myself in this exact predicament. Upon finishing Castlevania’s measly four episodes I was livid at how poorly made it was, at how stunningly mediocre the whole “season” ended up being. To my surprise, or maybe dismay, a cursory look on the internet revealed I was in the minority. It wasn’t hailed as a masterpiece, but it was generally received with positivity.

For background, Castlevania is based off a video game series of the same name (many entries of which I’ve played) and more specifically Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. The show, like the game, follows Trevor Belmont, a descendent of the heroic monster-hunting Belmont family who in recent years have been exiled from the church and society. He teams up with a mystic named Sypha and Dracula’s rogue vampire son Alucard to defeat Dracula and his demon hordes. Where the show deviates is in its explanation why: that the Christian Church burned Dracula’s doctor (and human) wife Lisa for “witchcraft.” With nothing left to make him happy, Dracula decides to burn it all to the ground, giving the people of Wallachia one year before he summons his armies from Hell and kills every last one of them. Not surprisingly, they waste their year and the country is slowly overrun by horrifying demons.

Now there are many ways to read this series: as an anime-influenced Western cartoon, as a gory horror fantasy show, as the latest Netflix original series, or (perhaps least interestingly, but most importantly) as a video game adaptation. In its favor as a horror fantasy show, it does have a somewhat interesting premise even if the story that follows is riddled with cliches. As a Netflix original series, it had really strong subdued performances by actors who do a good job with material that is only occasionally witty or engaging. As an anime-influenced Western cartoon, its character designs and background art are adequate and its fight scenes have really interesting stunts (mostly thanks to the whip combat, an underused weapon in media), but its animation is severely lacking. As a video game adaptation, it’s not a complete dumpster fire which immediately makes it one of the best adaptations of all time.

It’s easy to see why people enjoy Castlevania. Expectations were low going in, it does just enough things well that it’s not obviously bad, and it utilizes a few easy hooks, like gore and fight scenes, for people to latch on to. As a Castlevania fan, I’m well aware that it could have been way worse. As a film junkie and animation nerd, I can’t ignore that this does not mean that it’s very good. Looking back on my experience though, I can soundly point to one factor that absolutely ruined it for me and, if you read the rest of this review, may ruin it for you as well.

So let’s get this out of the way: don’t watch Castlevania… yet. It’s a very mediocre show all around, but it has a lot of promise. Unfortunately, at only four episodes it’s barely the first act in a larger story and doesn’t end in a remotely satisfying way. Once season two comes out in an ungodly amount of time, give the whole thing a watch. Until then? Don’t bother teasing yourself.

Alright now on to the no-fun part. So in the second episode of Castlevania, there’s a bar fight and it was during this scene that I noticed something. The rhythm of the fight was… off. The action would pause and then rush through a flurry of movement, an exchange of punches would be a tad too slow, the characters would react with just a half second more time than what felt natural. I tried to ignore it, assuming that this was because the characters were drunk, but even after that fight, this poor rhythm continued. It was noticeable in every sequence, be it the establishing shots, demons terrorizing the town, what should be standard dialogue, and, worst of all, every single fight scene. There would be a handful of times where I could ignore it, where I could buy back into the verisimilitude, but for the most part, this nagging thought consumed me: Castlevania is slowwwwww.

I mean “slow” in every single cinematic sense of the word. It’s infuriating. Every establishing or non-character centric shot is held a second too long, making it abundantly clear when those spaces are empty. The demons feel more like a few stragglers than an army, the citizens feel like a smattering of extras rather than a city, the scenery feels less like a world and more like a backdrop. These are all understandable limitations of the budget, but you’re supposed to cut fast enough that people don’t notice the details and Castlevania‘s uncomfortably long shots only highlighted them.

In dialogue scenes there’s an extra beat before characters react or in between lines, making those aforementioned subdued performances just boring to listen to. Which alone is a shame, but it also reveals how cyclical the dialogue can be, with the characters discussing the same things over and over again.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a big kung fu fan, but this pacing issue is the worst during fight scenes. The fights generally play out as clumsy exchanges of blows, with pauses for characters to react or retaliate that last for a beat or two longer than they should and even a few instances of the attacks themselves being slow. Now, I should emphasize that the whip combat is genuinely really cool, and the stunts that Belmont pulls are clever. Unfortunately, they often pass by so fast that you can barely enjoy them. It’s hard to tell if it actually is edited too quickly or if it’s edited at a normal pace and the rest is so slow that it causes a kind of whiplash (no pun intended).

Now as a disclaimer, this could all be on me. I could have a particular mindset or have watched some media recently that clashes in timing with how Castlevania was made. If I were to speculate though, I would say there are two possibilities as to how Castlevania ended up this way, the most probable being inexperience. It’s hard, especially in animation, to get a sense of how individual shots will tie together until you’re editing a near complete cut and by then it might be too late. The main animation studios responsible for Castlevania have been around since the early 2000s, so this doesn’t seem likely. I can’t really judge the crew individually because a lot of smaller indy projects don’t end up on imdb, so who knows how experienced most of them are.

The other time I’ve seen this is in really cheap older anime that are trying to make the most out of their limited budget and pad out their run time. I’d prefer to think that is not what is happening here. I’d really like to think that Netflix was fine with the run time being whatever it needed to be, as they are with most of their shows, but it’s possible they weren’t. It’s possible they whoever had the money in this instance wanted a standard 20-minute show and wanted at least four episodes. Who knows?

Regardless of why, this is an enjoyment-breaking factor for me. It distracts from the writing and the acting, plus it ruins the action and general pacing. It makes a mediocre show insufferable. Hopefully, season two improves. In fact, I’d be surprised if it didn’t. As I said before, once more episodes come out then give it a chance, but skip Castlevania for now. It’s just not worth it.

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