The works of Stephen King have thrilled and scared for decades as well as being adapted into numerous successful (and not so successful) television and film adaptations. But non-King fans may not be aware that author is known to drop multiple Easter eggs and references to his other works in each novel – essentially creating a literary shared universe, which brings us to the genesis of J.J. Abrams’ new mystery-horror series Castle Rock premiering July 25 on Hulu.
The series takes place within the boundaries of the “Stephen King multiverse” (as the official synopsis describes it) inside the mysterious town of Castle Rock, Maine. Within the confines of this seemingly quaint borough are dark secrets, many of which spanning back decades and in true King fashion, they slowly gather together the forces of light and dark.
Hulu was kind enough to provide us with the first four episodes of Castle Rock and the show is primarily a creepy, slow-burn serialized story. Much like Abrams’ smash hit series LOST, this series has a large ensemble cast with hidden backstories that unfold as the episodes progress, but Castle Rock plays more sinister like some of the King novels with a broader scope like IT or even The Stand.
Speaking of the author’s literary works, Castle Rock is a King fan’s greatest dream. Every episode, including the opening credits, are laced with subtle references and allusions to King’s entire catalog. Casual viewers may find the first four episodes a tad too slow, which is a valid complaint, but those who love to obsess over every hint or reference in a TV series should have a field day here – this one is chock full of them.
Not every piece of King novel history is referenced subtly and the series boldly pushes recognizable characters and locations into the narrative. The most prominent is the now ex-Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), best known for battling evil in the novels The Dark Half and Needful Things, but is now old and retired in this contemporary setting. Glenn is every bit as grumpy and snarky as he was as Stick in Marvel’s Daredevil and is terrific as the man who has seen his share of darkness in Castle Rock and is happy to be finally settled down to his simple life.
Before the ex-Sheriff hung up his boots, Pangborn found himself in another unexplained circumstance during the 90’s when he found a young man named Henry Deaver (played as an adult by André Holland). Henry had been missing in the wilderness for several days in sub-zero temperatures, yet re-appeared without frostbite or injury of any kind. After the rescue, Henry has since grown up and left town to become a lawyer, but finds himself returning home after a tragedy starts a domino effect that draws him back to Castle Rock.
Part of the circumstances of his return involve the finding of a young, unnamed man (Bill Skarsgård) in the bowels of Shawshank prison (yes, that Shawshank) that shouldn’t be a prisoner and by all accounts and records doesn’t even exists. Whether good or bad, within this young man is the eye of the storm surrounding Castle Rock and Skarsgård brings a different kind of creepy than his revered turn as Pennywise the Clown in IT. Shawshank itself also looms heavy as a presence over the town (and the show) as a primary location for much of the early episodes.
Needless to say, everyone has secrets on the show and to reveal too much about the characters like legendary Carrie actress Sissy Spacek’s supporting role as Henry’s adoptive mom Ruth or the criminally underrated Melanie Lynskey as Henry’s childhood friend would spoil some of the fun. Regardless, all of the actors and actresses turn in great performances and really sell what can at times be a show with a lot of mood, but little action.
Castle Rock is also gorgeously shot with suspense inducing angles and clever visual ploys framed in a washed out palate that feels cold and desperate. Although the series isn’t for anyone without patience and looking for an action packed, fast paced Stephen King thrill-a-thon, there’s still plenty fresh and new here for King fans that still also somehow feels familiar. The biggest hurdle for the series’ success as a whole will be whether the show hits outside the author’s fandom.
Hopefully the show picks up steam past the early four episodes and ups the ante with exciting reveals and unexpected twists because the start is quite promising, but not perfect. Hulu is a great place to launch Castle Rock due to the ability of all our dear readers to binge their way through immediately to quickly get to all the answers (and scares) that they’ll definitely begin to demand and crave as the show unfolds.
The early episodes have an intriguing mix of King's sinister storytelling and the J.J. Abrams' LOST-style of winding mysteries. The cast is also terrific leaving only the somewhat slow pacing as a potential problem that could derail the remaining episodes of this creepy, bingeable series if it doesn't have a satisfying payoff.