One thing you can say for sure about Netflix is that there's a hell of a lot to watch on it. Some is old, some is new, some is fire, some is dire. But there's certainly no shortage of choice. I occasionally find myself scrolling through what feels like about 200 pages of loosely targeted lists of content, in search of something good. That's not to say everything I scroll past is rubbish, more that sometimes too much choice is a bad thing, and makes it almost impossible to make a viewing decision.
Anyway, during one such epic scroll quest, I came across Castlevania. Why did I decide to watch it? I have no idea. Perhaps the bold colours of its animation made it leap out, or I had some vestigial memory of playing the nightmarishly hard Nintendo console side-scrollers it's (very loosely) based on.
Thankfully, 4 series of well-drawn madness with decidedly louche voice acting later, I am extremely glad I did.
Netflix may not be the best streaming service, for me. I usually gravitate to Amazon Prime Video, but it does have an excellent anime selection. Castlevania, despite appearances, is not strictly speaking anime. It has a very British/European sensibility and a largely British voice cast, which includes such plummy legends as Bill Nighy and Jason Isaacs, as well as a guest appearance from America's Peter Stormare, no less, as a huge vampire boss type.
Seriously, how would you get the guy who stuffs Steve Buscemi into a bark chipper, the old rocker bloke from Love Actually and Lucius fucking Malfoy to voice your cartoon if it wasn’t seriously good?
What Castlevania does very successfully is take the largely incomprehensible lore of the long-running Japanese game series, put it into a cartoon that looks Japanese and has most of the tropes of adult, X-rated anime, but it's all bundled up in a very British irony capsule. The characters largely sound like they're from an extremely violent Radio 4 drama. It has no right to be brilliant, but somehow it is.
As someone who is only tangentially interested in weird cartoons, I fully expected Castlevania to be cheesy rubbish. It is not. Now I've seen it all, I'm left wondering why it's not better known outside of anime fan circles. Although, given the amount of kinky sex, extreme violence, dark humour and horrifying demons with faces full of teeth and eyes on their knees, perhaps I shouldn't be.
The plot of the Castlevania is summarised quite well in Wikipedia as follows: Count Dracula's wife has been burnt at the stake. Distraught at this, he intends to kill every human in the country of Wallachia, using an army of grotesque summoned demons. Standing against him are a monster hunter with the hilariously non-macho name of 'Trevor Belmont' – the Belmont family is big in Castlevania lore – aided by a magician with a comedy French accent, Sypha Belnades – no really – and Dracula's rebellious son Alucard, whose name, the more perceptive among you will note, is 'Dracula' backwards. Clever stuff, right?
Wiki's is a succinct summary, but it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of how complicated and massive the Castlevania story becomes over its four seasons.
This is handled quite cleverly, as the first series is over in only four episodes, leaving you thirsty for more. Then series 2 fills in huge amounts of back story – often to the point where nothing happens to advance the plot for hours on end. Don't worry; it's still highly entertaining. Most importantly, this series introduces Theo James and Adetokumboh M'Cormack as Hector and Isaac, two rival 'forgemasters' able to summon demons or turn humans into them. Some of the most memorable scenes in Castlevania show the demon army of the conflicted Isaac making its horrifying way through Wallachia, leaving a trail of carnage and grotesque demon transformations in its wake.
With all of the story's cards now on the table, everything really kicks off from series 3. It's a riotous cavalcade of blood-letting, nudity, faux-profound musings, continent-wide warfare and, of course, a regular dosage of whip- and spell-based monster thrashings.
I had no idea what was going on much of the time, but I loved it.
The show has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes overall, with series 2 and 4 scoring a hard-to-argue-with 100% rating. The audience score is 89% which is very impressive for such a strange and violent series that is at times incomprehensible and at other times seems to be almost deliberately being boring.
Up next is a sequel of sorts, in which descendants of Trevor Belmont and Sypha Belnades fight demons in revolutionary France. In the context of this loopy show, that makes perfect sense.