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‘Castle Rock’ opens its creepy doors in Kingly fashion

July 22, 2018

‘Castle Rock’ opens its creepy doors in Kingly fashion

CLEVELAND, Ohio – You can’t escape Stephen King. He’s everywhere . . . or so it seems.

The past year has seen a nonstop parade of movie and TV projects based on the prolific horromeister’s works. And, no question, some of it has been exceptional, including the film version of “It,” the series “Mr. Mercedes” and the Netflix adaptation of “Gerald’s Game.”

Every week seems to bring a another King film or TV production. And if not that, it brings news of plans for another King film or TV production.

Last week, for instance, the horror-minded streaming service Shudder announced that producer-director-makeup-wizard Greg Nicotero (“The Walking Dead”) would be helming a series version of King’s 1982 anthology film “Creepshow.” This week, on Wednesday, July 25, Hulu premieres “Castle Rock,” executive producer J.J. Abrams’ much-anticipated series based on various King stories, characters and themes.

As the title suggests, the series is set in the uber-spooky Maine town of Castle Rock, the fictional setting for such King works as “The Dead Zone,” “Cujo,” “The Dark Half” and “Needful Things.” And there’s really no escaping Stephen King once you’ve entered the town limits of Castle Rock, where there are no limits on the fear factor.

Things just don’t go bump in the night in Castle Rock. Terror pretty much is a 24/7 business in this haunted corner of Maine.

But if you want to dwell on something really scary, pause for a moment to consider the challenge being undertaken here. Abrams and the show’s creators, Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, are trying to craft a King story that isn’t really a King story yet is worthy of King’s stories. They are pulling together bits and pieces of the King-verse and hoping to arrange them in a way that is both authentic and intriguing.

So, is it worth booking a summer trip to “Castle Rock”? Based on the early returns, it sure looks like this will be a frightfully fun destination.

Did you detect some hedging lurking in there? Well, Hulu made the first three episodes of “Castle Rock” available to critics, and this is a solid case of so far, so pretty good.

Most of these opening episodes are about establishing the world, introducing the characters and setting up the mystery. It’s all about baiting the hook, and this “Castle Rock” does with a great deal of atmosphere and mood.

But you get the feeling that things are just getting rolling at the end of the third episode. OK, now we know the characters. We know some of their issues. We know the dimensions of this landscape called “Castle Rock.” Now what?

Evaluating the series at this point would be the equivalent of reading the first three chapters of a King novel, then making up your mind about the whole book at that point. You need more. And the brooding beauty of “Castle Rock” is that this introductory phase leaves you wanting more.

It is not necessary to be a King fan to enjoy a prolonged stay in “Castle Rock.” King fans, however, will have a grand time spotting all of the references to his stories and characters – some fleeting and sly, some obvious and purposely overplayed.

There are a ton of Easter eggs in these eerie proceedings, although, in this case, perhaps they’d be better referred to as Halloween pumpkins. Even the casting qualifies as one of these, since most of the regulars have previous King and/or horror credits.

The “Castle Rock” cast includes: Sissy Spacek, star of the very first King movie, “Carrie” (1976); Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise in last year’s first half of King’s “It”; Melanie Lynskey (King’s “Rose Red” miniseries); “Lost” star Terry O’Quinn (King’s “Silver Bullet”); Scott Glenn (“The Silence of the Lambs”); Jane Levy (“Evil Dead”); and Andre Holland (“American Horror Story: Roanoke”).

Holland, the strongest central player in this early going, plays Henry Deaver, a death-row attorney lured back to his hometown, Castle Rock, by an anonymous call from Shawshank State Prison (not the Ohio State Reformatory, which doubled for the prison in “The Shawshank Redemption”).

Yet there is an Easter egg reference to “The Shawshank Redemption” when there’s talk of former wardens who have committed suicide: “You can still see the bullet hole where Warden Norton . . . ”

We learn there is a boarded-up wing at Shawshank that has been unoccupied for 30 years. And, yeah, how creepy is that? We follow two guards told by the new warden to investigate the abandoned area, and thus we are drawn into the dark maze that is “Castle Rock.”

The wing isn’t completely unoccupied, you see. The guards find a caged young man (Skarsgard) with a haunted look and no known name. The only words he says are, “Henry Deaver.”

They dub him “The Kid.” Who is he? What is he? Why was he caged? What is his connection to Henry and Castle Rock?

While Henry may not realize it, he’s on the path to confronting his dark past. He’s also on the path that could decide the town’s future.

Along the way, he reconnects with people from his past, including his adoptive mother, Ruth Deaver (Spacek), retired town sheriff Alan Pangborn (Glenn) and former childhood friend Molly Strand (Lynskey), now the town’s ambitious but troubled real-estate agent.

Molly is harboring several secrets, which are revealed episode by episode. And Pangborn, as King fans can tell you, was the sheriff of Castle Rock in “The Dark Half” and “Needful Things.”

Henry also encounters Jackie Torrance (Levy), the town’s sarcastic unofficial historian, who wonders if the local gossip about the lawyer’s past is true. We wonder if she is any relation to Jack Torrance, the lead character in King’s “The Shining.”

Mysteries are stacked up on top of mysteries. Still, the biggest “Castle Rock” mystery is whether, after all of this solid foundation work, it will have the gripping narrative drive and sheer storytelling power of King’s best books. Will it turn into the TV equivalent of a page-turner?

This is how it needs to most resemble King’s writing. Will it? Despite the nits there are to pick (like the curious lack of Maine accents), the strong cast convinces us to stick around in “Castle Rock” to find out.

Meet you there, somewhere around the intersection of horror and hope.

REVIEW

Castle Rock

What: A series based on Stephen King stories and characters.

When: Wednesday, July 25.

Where: Hulu