Libertié, Égalité … Brutalité: Review of Netflix’s Castlevania: Nocturne
Spoilers for Castlevania and Castlevania: Nocturne
On the 28th of September, the eight-episode series Castlevania: Nocturne, the sequel to Castlevania (2017-2021) directed by duo Adam and Sam Deats debuted on Netflix. It was much anticipated by both viewers of the previous Netflix series, including myself along with devotees to the video games which appeared on numerous consoles from 1986 to 2021. With season 2 confirmed a few weeks ago, Nocturne seemsto be setting itself up for something much more different and fluid than its predecessor.
Nocturne hurtles the gothic world three hundred years into the future and far from fictionalised Wallachia, Romania into the town of Machecoul, France in 1792 – the peak of the French Revolution. Under the guise of supporting the monarchy and Church while literally and metaphorically feasting on the poor, the vampires attempt to usher in their own “Vampire Messiah” and replenish their human-demon hybrids known as “night creatures”. Unlike Castlevania, Nocturne intertwines history with mythology far more blatantly. For instance, the characterization of the narcissistic “Messiah” Countess Erzsebet Báthory (Franka Potente), who first appears in episode 2: the real Erzsebet Báthory being the sixteenth century Hungarian noblewoman who was accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of girls over a thirty-year period.
Indeed, the above example is the most noticeable reality-fiction parallel and the ‘vampiricisation’ of the aristocracy of Nocturne is arguably a powerful analogy. The dehumanisation of the “other” has been a constant trope present within chronicled events throughout time, frequently weaponised against social movements and oppressed populations. In Nocturne, it is deployed to emphasise the intense cruelty and depravity of Erzsebet and her loyalists. Especially, the sadistic enforcer Drolta Tzuentes (Elarica Johnson), and ex-slave-plantation owner Vaublanc (Alastair Duncan) who oversees the production of “night creatures”. So, there is no shortage of gore and violence when they are seen on-screen.
But what of our band of revolutionaries? Within the first episode we are introduced to Richter Belmont (Benjamin Plessala and Edward Bluemel), Maria Renard (Pixie Davies), Tera (Nastassja Kinski), Annette (Thuso Mbedu), and Edouard (Sydney James Harcourt). The latter two have arrived from the Francophone Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue, Haiti to warn of the “Messiah”.
In episode 1, we are immediately given the backstory for Richter’s first vampiric encounter where Orlox (Zahn McClarnon) murders his mother, Julia (Sophie Skelton) as an act of vengeance for killing his lover in North America and vows to one day kill the boy when he is a man. Years later, Richteris a skilled fighter but lacks some life experience resulting in questionable decisions such as in episode 5 where he runs away after seeing his nightmare personified. Eventually, he overcomes his fear of Orlox and discovers his true ancestral powers thanks to the appearance of his grandfather Juste (Iain Glen) in episode 6.
Similarly, the revolutionary witch Maria Renard, Tera’s daughter, and stepsister to Richter, impassionedly embodies the spirit of fighting for freedom and equality. Plus, Pixie Davies’s range as Maria and the animations of her conjured companions and combat are fun to watch. However, we don’t fully delve into her origin story except for the shocking revelation that she is the secret daughter of the Abbot (Richard Dormer) who is colluding with the vampires and ends up sacrificing Tera to Erzsebet instead of his daughter as originally planned.
Grief, duty, and self-preservation are inescapable concepts which the main characters constantly battle with in screenwriter Clive Bradley and his team’s storyline. But internal complexity is also embedded in the vampires. Seen in episode 4, Orlox is far less inclined to blindly worship Erzsebet and seems to still have some affinity for mankind even if it’s for his own purposes, be it via his secret relationship with the Abbot’s general Mizrak (Aaron Neil), or sarcastically providing intel to his former nemesis (the latter making little sense since he wanted to make a literal meal of Richter in episode 1).
The intertwining of history and mythology is pervasive in Nocturne, and in the context of Annette and Edouard, the two represent the less recognised part of this era’s Francophone revolutionary history. Revealed in episode 3, Annette was enslaved in Vaublanc’s plantation and eventually escaped using magic she wielded as a descendant of Yoruba orisha (gods). Using his privilege as a freed man and opera-singer, Edouard conceals her from recapture, and admits her into the island resistance where she learns more about her ancestors and helps lead the slave uprising in Saint Domingue – reminiscent of the real-life Haitian Revolution. Once in France, their alliance is brutally ended when Edouard is murdered and turned into a “night creature” in episode 2, effectively re-enslaved by Vaublanc.
As a “night creature”, Edouard refuses to forsake his humanity and Harcourt’s emotive singing in character enchants the fellow afflicted to remember themselves and help his former friends in later episodes. Whilst Edouard’s exceptional circumstances left me a bit puzzled, Annette’s characterisation has resulted in some viewers review-bombing Nocturne. Here, I must note that yes, Annette in Nocturne is a radical departure from the femme fatale vampire Annette in the game ‘Rondo of Blood’ (1993) and Tera appears to be set up for this horrifying role next season instead. Ultimately, the two are original characters and the original Castlevania series did not stay wholly true to the games either. So, for those annoyed with Nocturne’s Annette being “too political”, did they forget the show is set during the French Revolution?
Castlevania: Nocturne had the challenge of delving into another storyline from a retro videogame franchise and reckoning with the euphoric legacy left by its predecessor series. If you are looking for a show to watch for the remainder of this year’s spooky season, this is undoubtedly a good choice. Despite the mysterious ending, I’m glad Nocturne ended on a steep cliffhanger with some important unanswered questions about the fates of our characters. With the release date for season 2 yet to be announced, Nocturne leaves much to the morbid imagination.