Castle Rock is easy to love if you’ve already given yourself up to Stephen King’s brand of campfire story, with all the hokey chuckles and midnight palm-sweating that comes with it. I know I have—I just finished enjoying King’s latest, The Outsider—which makes me a prime target (though, I suspect, not the only target) for Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason’s Hulu original series, based on King’s mythos. Michael Uppendahl directs the solid pilot, which pushes artistry and literary fidelity into its compellingly sketched mystery, and the hooks only sink in deeper over the four episodes made available to critics.
The plot and environment (because one is inevitably entangled with the other) use the stories of Stephen King as their knitting fiber, intertwining both meta- and textual characters and themes into the afflicted town of Castle Rock (home of Cujo and The Dead Zone). Along with It’s Derry and the oft-abbreviated Jerusalem’s Lot, Castle Rock makes up the Bermuda triangle of fictitious Maine haunts that King keeps coming back to. King’s work loves a polluted system, and towns work just as well as prisons or hotels.
Castle Rock’s camera loves this fact, exploring and admiring the location and its details like a walking tour guide as it meanders around homes and forests. The camera moves are small, potent reminders of psychology masquerading as style. This isn’t a flashy narrative. It’s a montage of seen-but-not-heard inner monologues.
The series combines the characters’ personal histories and that of the town in a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano. Sucked back home by a specter we’ve all encountered at various levels of intensity—a phone call from someone we don’t know—is Henry Deaver (André Holland), a death-row attorney whose childhood featured a tragic death and a sensationalized news story. Holland plays Deaver haunted, charismatic, and badly in need of a win. His old home is inhabited by Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), a tired, retired, and terribly-haircut ex-sheriff who’s having a late-in-life fling with Henry’s adoptive and dementia-afflicted mom, Ruth (Sissy Spacek). Really, everyone could use a win.
The depressing potential for such comes from Shawshank. Dennis Zalewski (Noel Fisher, giving off a Giovanni Ribisi vibe of good-natured dirtbag ineptitude) is a reformed version of The Green Mile’s Percy Wetmore—a prison guard wary of his own feelings of superiority. His partner, played by Chris Coy (who is also a breakout on The Deuce), provides lovely deadpan ballast to the relationship. The two discover a secret cage at the bottom of an abandoned water tank in a closed-off wing of the prison. Inside is a nameless, feral, Man in the Iron Mask-esque prisoner played by Bill Skarsgård. Yikes. This is one of a few central mysteries linking the various inhabitants of the screwed-up hamlet.
As Henry navigates the racial politics of the small-town Maine military-industrial complex, the series hands out treats to horror fans like they were trick-or-treating. Cars, rock music, and the secrets lurking beneath snow and concrete are the hallmarks of King’s work, which Castle Rock sees as mythological scripture. The credit sequence literally shows passages and chapter headings from the books blended into a best-selling smoothie that’s not unlike the work King was churning out in the depths of his addictions.
While the plot connects all sorts of King lore through a mystery as dense in its references as it is clear in its spookiness, though, you don’t need to have a bibliographical Rosetta Stone to get something out of Castle Rock. The frozen Maine woods and its nor’eastern creepiness— where the buildings, families, and emotions seem old enough to gain some supernatural attributes—create some truly disturbing images that feel perfectly lo-fi for small-town terror. The characters in the town make even the whitest collar work feel blue, like it was thrown into the same load of laundry. Defense lawyers and prison guards, real estate and drug dealing: Everyone’s living hand to mouth in a town this haunted.
One of these is Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey, so delicately complex that you’re drawn physically closer to the screen trying to suss out how she’s really feeling), the Shining-tinged, hyper-empathetic voyeur that used to live across the street from Henry. Her powers work at the same inexplicable, animalistic level as the fear caused by the nameless prisoner. His eyes don’t understand; they hate and fear in equal measure. Seeing that primal difference between something with which we can negotiate (another person, a semi-domestic animal, a deity, an organization) and something which remains alien and hostile to us is the key to Castle Rock’s mystique.
The inexplicable is everywhere, and though the plot progresses, the mysteries seem unlikely to be neatly “solved” by the town’s inhabitants, compared to The X-Files or even The Twilight Zone. This is a strangeness that rebuffs attempts to find a solution, to find normalcy. It makes Zalewski a well-intentioned fool screwing up in an evil system, an ironic reversal of what we’d like to assume about the heroic underdog. It makes Lynskey’s work as Strand build this dense atmosphere as deeply as Skarsgård’s otherworldly performance.
The atmosphere works because the series’ thematic and artistic construction do each other plenty of favors. For example, the show treats religion and the supernatural as forces that aren’t necessarily on equal footing, but are certainly enabling each other, like a father pushing his child higher and higher on the swing set. Which is which never stays the same. There’s misguided righteousness, dangerous excitement, and legitimate goodness caught up in the battle for Castle Rock’s soul, which is an exciting spin on the conventional Exorcist-like binary questioning of faith.
The muddy morals, like the blurred boundary between supernatural and natural, are echoed in the sound design, which features the melding of usually clear signals—a blaring alarm and a heartbeat monitor, for example—edited in conjunction with the images to produce eerie transitions. As a result, we’re left lingering in scenes that have passed long after half our brain is told “move along, nothing to see here.” It makes Castle Rock easy to watch but hard to leave, because the ideas, images, and sounds keep ringing in your head after the credits roll and you lock the door before bed.
But it’s not a perfect piece of prestige TV. There are plenty of silly allusions in the show, like the very character of Jackie Torrance (Jane Levy). Yes, Jackie Torrance. There are also concepts so worn that they’ve most recently worked in Riverdale, simply because that show plates them next to an entree of so much oddball ham. There’s less ham when a man we saw kill himself in the pilot narrates a later episode, but it’s certainly ham-adjacent. Bacon, maybe. Ham but a little more crisp, a little tastier, a little worse for your health. For good and for ill, that’s where much of King’s work aims, and Castle Rock is nothing if not a winning offering to its idol. Fans will find exactly what they came for, while curious newcomers and King agnostics will find themselves enveloped by the self-assured mystery’s densely woven blanket.
Castle Rock premieres Wednesday, July 25 on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.