Castlevania - Season One, Episode One - “Witchbottle”
Starring Emily Swallow, Graham McTavish, James Callis, Matt Frewer, Richard Armitage, Tony Amendola, and Alejandra Reynoso
Written by Warren Ellis
Directed by Sam Deats
Airing on Netflix
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Religion, science, and ultraviolence collide in the epic series premiere of Netflix’s Castlevania. The newest animation effort from the entertainment behemoth instantly evokes the feeling and dread of the original Konami classics, with emphasis on the third installment, Dracula’s Curse, from which this series is heavily based.
Backed by maverick producer Adi Shankar (Dredd, Venom: Dirty Laundry), a stellar voice cast, and the brutal writing of Warren Ellis, Castlevania starts big and only promises to get bigger once you click “Next Episode.” While other Netflix animated shows like Voltron: Legendary Defender and BoJack Horseman have found success in adventure and comedy, the pilot episode of Castlevania unleashes a whole new kind of beast into your recommendations.
The first image of “Witchbottle” is a field of dry skeletons impaled on pikes across a barren and dusty field. So, already you are pretty well aware of what you are in for. Opening in Wallachia, Romania in 1455, Warren Ellis wastes little time throwing us hip deep into the romantically macabre world of this show and making us aware of our leading cast.
Looming over the field of the dead is a strange warped castle, the castle of Vlad Dracula Tepes, and standing at his door is a curious, determined woman named Lisa of Lupu demanding an audience with the castle’s master. Though this sounds like a pretty familiar horror setup, Ellis presents it as a meet-cute of sorts with Emily Swallow’s Lisa being bluntly aloof with Graham McTavish’s Dracula, beseeching him to teach her the “forbidden” knowledge of modern science and medicine. Dracula, in turn, is taken with the woman, who has given him a reason to tolerate humanity as well as purpose in becoming her mentor.
But nothing good can last, and in 20 years the church elders of Wallachia, led by Matt Frewer’s piously hawkish Bishop, have captured Lisa and burned her at the stake for “witchcraft” (i.e.: natural science) while her patron walked the lands “as a man.” Ellis plays the first act of this pilot reserved and surprisingly heartfelt, but once humanity slights Dracula, nothing can stand in his way.
The legendary Belmont clan, represented by Richard Armitage’s Trevor, and Dracula’s hybrid son Alucard, played by Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis, are largely absent from this first episode aside from some teasing hints, but McTavish’s performance more than makes up for their absence. Injecting wounded humanity into the role, McTavish’s smokey brogue charms and snarls in equal measure, playing the scenes with Swallow as the charming count while lording his dark powers over the Bishop with a commanding gravel.
And when I say kill, hoo, boy, do I mean kill. Director Sam Deats and Ellis cap off this pilot episode with a display of violence that is so over the top that’d be almost hilarious if it wasn’t so harrowing. This sequence isn’t for the faint of heart, but the show’s level of stylish bloodletting establishes a bold visual claim for the series, calling to mind shows like Berserk and Vampire Hunter: D. And the character work the pair engage in early on, like setting Dracula and Lisa’s first meeting in his gleaming solarium lab, does a great deal to contextualize Dracula’s rage, making it more than just mindless violence.
After breezily fun efforts like the Marvel anime features and the criminally underseen G.I. Joe: Resolute, Warren Ellis seems in his element with Castlevania, reveling in the dark science-infused magic that makes Injection so fun each month and the extreme violence of some of his lesser known Avatar Press works. Made complete by a clanging, discordant, Atticus Ross-like score from composer Trevor Morris, the first episode of Netflix’s Castlevania is a bold, beautiful, and bloody new weekend obsession for fans of the franchise, horror aficionados, and the morbidly curious alike.