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Castle Rock Is Worth a Visit, Even if You Don't Get Spooked

Hulu's Stephen King-inspired series is smart and sophisticated

Liam Mathews

Stephen King's Constant Readers (and casual fans) will find a lot to like in Hulu's Castle Rock, a new drama series inspired by the horror master's stories, if they can stick through the slow pace.

Castle Rock is basically big-budget fan fiction, with new writers telling a King-style story in a couple of his most famous fictional settings, the cursed town of Castle Rock, Maine, and the infamous Shawshank Prison. There's one character who will be familiar to King fans -- Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who appeared in The Dark Half and Needful Things -- and plenty of references to King's oeuvre like Cujo and The Body/Stand By Me, but for the most part it's new characters and a general feeling of Stephen Kinginess that's successfully captured even as it breaks from his template in significant ways.

The show has many threads, but at the center of the web is Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a death row lawyer who returns home to Castle Rock to work on the curious case of a very strange, nameless young man (Bill Skarsgard) who is discovered in an animal cage in an abandoned wing of Shawshank Prison. Further Kingifying things, the young man was placed there for unknown reasons by former warden Dale Lacy (Terry O'Quinn), who (spoiler alert for the show's first 10 minutes) killed himself shortly after the prison was privatized.

Henry is something like a pariah in Castle Rock because in the winter of 1991 he went missing for 11 days and his adoptive father, a beloved minister, was seriously injured during the search and died shortly after. Henry was found by Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played in 2018 by Scott Glenn) completely unharmed, not even cold, but with no memory of what happened. So the town blames him for his father's death. The only person who still cares about Henry is his childhood neighbor Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), who has psychic powers that make her hear and feel other people's thoughts. But she's dealing with personal demons of her own, obviously. Henry is carrying out two investigations that appear to be the backbone of Season 1: what's the deal with the kid in the cage, and what happened to him when he was a boy?

The Stephen King Movies You Should Stream to Prepare for Castle Rock

Castle Rock is more of a character drama than a horror thriller, to be honest. It's less tense than you'd expect and not very scary at all (except for Bill Skarsgard's Kubrickian hollow stare), and moves at a deliberate pace that may frustrate people who want to be spooked. With its emphasis on character development and esoteric mystery, it has more in common with The Leftovers than The Walking Deador recent paper-thin TV adaptations of King's work (Under the Dome, anyone?). More than anything else, Castle Rock is about a place's effect on the people who live there. A lot of the horror comes from life in a declining American town where the only job opportunity is making nine bucks an hour working at the prison.

Castle Rock is executive-produced by J.J. Abrams, who knows a thing or two about capturing other creators' tones, and written by Sam Shaw (Manhattan) and Dustin Thomason, who do an admirable job of taking the major themes of King's works -- childhood trauma, psychic powers, sin and salvation, the thin line between good and evil -- and making them both recognizably Kingian and their own. They add a social conscience that isn't always so explicit in King's works, making a sophisticated point about the socioeconomic consequences of prison privatization. It also deals with race with a little more tact than King usually manages (Henry is a black man in the whitest state in America, and the show doesn't forget that).

Through its first four hours, Castle Rock is an interesting experiment that mostly pays off on the strength of its performances and writing. Hopefully as the season progresses -- and if it gets picked up for Season 2 -- it figures out the other part that makes Stephen King's writing so compelling: edge-of-your-seat, full-throttle, gut-twisting terror.

The first three episodes of Castle Rock premiere Wednesday, July 25 on Hulu, then episodes will be released on a weekly basis.