Castle Rock, Hulu's upcoming J.J. Abrams-produced anthology series, is inspired by the work of horror icon Stephen King. (King was not involved in its creation beyond lending his characters and settings to the show.) Castle Rock is an entirely new story created by executive producers Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, but it uses some of the same type of intertextuality King implements in his stories, many of which are set in the same universe. Castle Rock is set in the titular Maine town King created, and at least one character who has appeared in previous stories of his will appear on the show, along with references and Easter eggs to several other King touchstones. Here are the Castle Rock-set movies to watch before Castle Rock premieres.
The Dark Half and Needful Things
The aforementioned Castle Rock character who appeared in previous King works is Alan Pangborn, who as sheriff of Castle Rock battled demonic author George Stark in the 1989 novel The Dark Half and demonic shopkeeper Leland Gaunt in 1991's Needful Things (investigating why so much evil stuff happens in one little town is one of the main ideas in Castle Rock). The Hulu drama premieres in two weeks, so unless you're a fast reader with time to kill, you might not be able to get through the thousand-plus pages of the two novels combined in time for the show's debut. But you can familiarize yourself with Pangborn's history in the movies based on the novels, which coincidentally both came out in 1993.
The Dark Half is set before Needful Things and finds Pangborn played by The Walking Dead's Michael Rooker. He's a supporting character in the story of author Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), who tries to lay his pen name George Stark (Hutton again) to rest, but Stark isn't ready to be put down. (It's inspired by King's retirement of his own pen name, Richard Bachman.) The faintly goofy flick was directed by late horror maestro George A. Romero, with whom King had previously collaborated on the anthology film Creepshow. The Dark Half is currently only available to stream on Vudu.
Pangborn then takes center stage in Needful Things, where he's played by Ed Harris. Pangborn is one of the only people in town who doesn't fall under the manipulative spell of Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow), who opens the titular store which sells exactly what the shopper's heart desires... for a steep price. Pangborn is a put-upon cop who moved to Castle Rock to get away from a traumatic life on the beat in Pittsburgh, but trouble always finds him. His girlfriend is Polly Chalmers (Bonnie Bedelia), and according to the novel Bag of Bones, after the events of Needful Things, Pangborn and Polly move to New Hampshire. Needful Things is available to stream on Amazon, and it's recommended only for completists, because it's a pretty terrible movie.
By the time we see him in Castle Rock, Pangborn (Scott Glenn) is retired and disillusioned. He's living in Castle Rock and Polly Chalmers is out of the picture. Instead, he's shacked up with Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek), the mother of Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), who Pangborn found as a boy in the woods, mysteriously healthy after being missing for almost two weeks in the winter of 1991. This version of Pangborn may not be exactly the same one we've seen before (there have been no obvious references to The Dark Half or Needful Things in the Castle Rock episodes I've seen), but the weariness on display in Needful Things has grown even heavier in the years since.
The Shawshank Redemption
Oddly, what's perhaps the most necessary movie to watch before Castle Rock is one of King's least frightening. Much of the show is set in and revolves around disturbing occurrences at Shawshank State Penitentiary, starting with the discovery of an unidentified and unnerving young man (IT's Bill Skarsgard) who was being kept in an animal cage in an abandoned wing of the prison. Shawshank, of course, was also the setting of the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and the beloved 1994 film adaptation The Shawshank Redemption, which is available to rent or buy on Amazon.
Shawshank has gone through some changes since Andy Dusfrene (Tim Robbins) and Red Redding (Morgan Freeman) were incarcerated there. It's become a private, for-profit prison, and conditions have gotten even worse than they were when Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) had poor Tommy (Gil Bellows) murdered. But Shawshank wardens committing and covering up horrible crimes is something that will never change.
Stand by Me
An outlier in the Castle Rock movies is Stand by Me. The 1986 coming-of-age classic is based on one of King's novella The Body, which was in the collection Different Seasons, which also contained Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The movie shifts the setting from Castle Rock, Maine to the non-canonical Castle Rock, Oregon, but it still counts, especially since Castle Rock contains a passing reference to a body out by the train tracks. Stand by Me is available to stream on Starz or Amazon.
The Dead Zone and Cujo
The Dead Zone is acclaimed weird filmmaker David Cronenberg's most commercial movie, but it's still pretty weird. It stars Christopher Walken as a Castle Rock resident who comes out of a coma with the ability to see the future. Just another supernatural occurrence in a town full of them, though the weird story of the time Johnny Smith tried to assassinate evil senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) seems like something Castle Rock's unofficial town historian Jackie (Jane Levy) would remember. It's available to stream on Hulu. It also inspired the 2002 Anthony Michael Hall USA series of the same name.
Cujo, of course, is the one about the rabid St. Bernard. The movie is the least supernatural of the Castle Rock stories, because the part about the spirit of the serial killer cop from The Dead Zone maybe possessing the dog that was in the book didn't make the movie (the dog and the Castle Rock Strangler both get mentioned in the show). Cujo and The Dead Zone both feature George Bannerman, who Alan Pangborn replaced after Bannerman's death in Cujo. A reference to Cujo is seen in Castle Rock's most recent trailer in the form of a newspaper clipping about a rabid dog tearing through town. Cujo is available to stream on Starz or Amazon.
BONUS: The Green Mile
Shawshank director Frank Darabont's other prison-set King adaptation doesn't take place in Castle Rock, but death row figures heavily into both The Green Mile and Castle Rock. Grown-up Henry Deaver works as a death row lawyer in Texas, one state over from the Louisiana setting of the Tom Hanks vehicle about a Christlike inmate (the late Michael Clarke Duncan) and the prison guard whose life he changes. They're both supernatural crime stories that share themes of sin and salvation and the inhuman brutality of prison life. The Green Mile is available to stream on Hulu.
I programmed this little Stephen King film festival for you, but now's the time to tell you that you don't have to watch any of these before you watch Castle Rock. The show is a new, mostly self-contained story. The movies will deepen your understanding of the town, but you can go in completely unfamiliar and have no problem following along.
Castle Rock premieres Wednesday, July 25 on Hulu.