SYNOPSIS: A psychological-horror series set in the Stephen King multiverse, Castle Rock is an original story that combines the mythological scale and intimate character storytelling of King’s best-loved works, weaving an epic saga of darkness and light, played out on a few square miles of Maine woodland.
REVIEW: There are two kinds of Stephen King adaptations: really good ones and really, really bad ones. For every IT there is a MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. For every SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION there is a SLEEPWALKERS. For every CARRIE there is a CARRIE. But, what makes Stephen King’s writing so good is his knack for creating three dimensional characters who inhabit fully realized towns. King is notorious for setting multiple works within fictional places like Derry but it is the titular town of Castle Rock that has held the most sway over the author’s many tales. When word came down that J.J. Abrams and King were combining their creativity on a wholly original series called Castle Rock, I didn’t know what to expect. Having seen the first four episodes of the Hulu original series, I can say that the show is every King fan’s dream.
Combining elements from multiple King works into an all new story, Castle Rock pays homage to Stephen King in a very different way than Stranger Things did. Whereas that popular Netflix series combined a love for the 1980s with the works of King and Stephen Spielberg, Castle Rock is something like a greatest hits mash-up that pulls elements of his various novels and short stories into a cinematic universe. In the series, there are characters from the novels like Sherrif Alan Pangborn (played by Ed Harris in the film NEEDFUL THINGS and here portrayed by the great Scott Glenn). You also have characters who have ties to iconic characters, like Jane Levy’s character whose last name is Torrance, like Jack Nicholson’s character in THE SHINING. There is also the familiar setting of Shawshank Prison. You have an ensemble of familiar actors from the works of King like Sissy Spacek (CARRIE), Bill Skarsgård (IT), Melanie Lynskey (Rose Red) and other talented actors like Terry O’Quinn and Allison Tolman.
But all of it is anchored by the lead role of Henry Deaver, played by Andre Holland (The Knick, MOONLIGHT). Holland has the most challenging part to play as Henry Deaver is the catalyst for all of the disparate stories and phenomenon in Castle Rock. Everyone in the small town is connected to Deaver and his mysterious disappearance as a child for reasons that slowly begin to unravel through the series. In the first four episodes of the show, Henry comes from Texas all the way back to his hometown thanks to the sudden appearance of Skarsgard’s nameless character. Who or why the gaunt Shawshank prisoner requests Deaver remain unanswered in the episodes made available for review, but the show definitely succeeds in laying the groundwork for a major reveal in the latter half of the season. Through a series of flashbacks, Castle Rock feels like it came directly from Stephen King and may be the best adaptation of his work that is not in fact based on a single novel or short story.
If there is a negative thing to say about Castle Rock, it has to be on the lack of a clear explanation as to what is going on. After watching the premiere episode, I was left confused as to who these characters were or why they mattered to the story at all. Once the next batch of episodes were provided, I became more and more invested in the entire ensemble, especially the performances by Scott Glenn and SIssy Spacek. Melanie Lynskey and Andre Holland get the most screen time in the early going and both are talented actors, but the scene stealer is once again Bill Skarsgard. In a role complerely different than his portrayal of Pennywise in IT, Skarsgard is able to take his experience as the evil clown and translate it into a very subdued and subtle performance but one that may somehow be even scarier than Pennywise.
Some of you may have a specific question about Castle Rock: is it scary? There are definitely moments of tension and bizarre imagery but the horror element is not relegated to jump scares or gore. Atmosphere plays a big role in the thrills with the scares more psychological in nature. But, that doesn’t mean the episodes don’t make great use of music, sound, and editing to deliver some scenes that will have you keep your lights on. Like many recent King offerings on the small screen like The Mist and Under The Dome, Castle Rock uses the dynamic of a small town populated by diverse personalities to create drama. But they also cherry pick the supernatural and bizarre circumstances from various King works to create multiple narrative angles that can, at times, make the series feel a bit too busy. For a series that will only have a total of ten episodes, there may be too much going on. But, that could also bode well for the longevity of the series should it connect with audiences.
As any Stephen King fan will attest, the author’s biggest weakness is his lack of satisfying endings. Having only watched the first four episodes, I cannot speak to whether or not the story wrap up in any satisfactory manner, but it definitely has set up a potentially epic story. But, what exactly that story is remains fuzzy. There are som many characters here that need introduction that we are left with bread crumbs leading to something, but what that something is yet to be revealed. Castle Rock may be the best small screen project based on Stephen King’s expansive body of work and could be a worthy successor to supernatural series like Lost, The Leftovers and Stranger Things. While I found a lot to like in the show, I am cautiously optimistic that it will stick the landing. There is no doubt that the landscape of Castle Rock is teeming with stories to tell and I hope that they end with a bit more clarity than how they began.
CASTLE ROCK premieres the first three episodes of it’s first season on Hulu on July 25th. The remaining episodes will debut weekly after that.