The Stephen King empire keeps expanding. Just as Chapter 2 of the movie It is filming right now in Toronto, along comes an eerie series that is extrapolated from the strands of existing King material.
Castle Rock (Wednesday, Space, 9 p.m.), made for Hulu, is created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, and based on what might be called the Stephen King mythology. It’s set in the fictional town of Castle Rock in Maine that King – who is an executive producer along with J.J. Abrams – used as the setting for The Dead Zone and Needful Things.
As such, it is drenched in King’s touches and set inside the canvas of his work, but it is not one of his distinct narratives, either those sprawling novels or those shorter novellas and stories. Castle Rock is a tangled web of horror that sometimes works wonderfully as a riff on King’s world and sometimes, for the better, lacks his singular flourishes.
The upshot is a good, engaging horror-drama, binge-worthy (Space airs three episodes on Wednesday) and, if you are wary of Stephen King’s more macabre streak, you will find less to irritate you. If you want full-on King fright-and-monsters material, you’re not going to find it here. What you will find is a slow-burning drama, more psychological than conventional horror, and a very fine cast.
Things open in 1991, during a search for a missing child. A Gene Pitney song plays on a car radio while a man is searching alone in snowy woods. Then there’s a mysterious, ominous sound and the child appears out of nowhere. This is rich-atmosphere stuff, an unveiling that announces a lot in a short period.
Fast-forward to 2018 and it’s the last day at work for the warden (Terry O’Quinn) of Shawshank State Prison. His wife (Frances Conroy) sees him leave and then, on the way to his job, he commits suicide. This deftly manages to anchor the story in the penitentiary, where a good deal of the creeping horror unfolds. A new warden is appointed and promptly discovers that an entire wing hasn’t been used for years. We’re talking private-enterprise prison here, so she thinks expansion and revenue. When the old wing is explored, a young man is found sitting in a cage. This prisoner (Bill Skarsgard, who played the murderous clown Pennywise in It) doesn’t have much to say and looks either bewildered or evil, depending on the moment. The character is just called “The Kid” for a long time. Asked his name, he says “Henry Deaver.”
He isn’t Deaver, as a guard quickly realizes. Henry Deaver (played by André Holland from The Knick and Moonlight) is a lawyer in Texas specializing in death-row cases. He is also, however, that lost boy from 1991. Deaver returns to Castle Rock to look into the case of the mysterious prisoner. The circumstance is beyond strange. A guard says to the prisoner, “We got no records of you. How did you get inside this prison? Who put you down that hole?” And at first Deaver learns little. Yet he knows, because he’s got a connection to the sinister events of 1991, that Castle Rock is saturated with some form of malice.
There are few flourishes of the supernatural here. In fact, the series plays up themes that occur in King’s work and are more powerful and frightening than any ghoul. Adults mistreat children. Poverty is the scariest force of all. Those who have power over the wretched – in this case, guards paid to secure prisoners – will abuse their power and be stained by that abuse. This, though not written by him but derived from his work, is Stephen King as social critic, not horror maestro.
And thus, Castle Rock has an odd sort of gravitas while the ominous sense of evil percolates slowly. Some viewers might be distracted by the obvious casting of actors from previous movie or TV adaptations of King’s work. Sissy Spacek, who played the title character in Carrie years ago, plays Deaver’s adoptive mother. Ann Cusack, who was on Audience Network’s Mr. Mercedes, and Melanie Lynskey, who was in the 2002 King-scripted miniseries Rose Red, are also part of the cast. Fortunately, this is not gimmick casting. Spacek and Lynskey are excellent actors doing good work here.
The series is first-rate entertainment while never trying to reach for great seriousness. No previous knowledge of King’s work is required. In fact, it helps if you are new to this grave, menacing universe of characters and great malevolence.