Small-town terror: ‘Castle Rock’ has potential to thrill

By JIM SABATASO
Correspondent

Anyone who grew up in a small town knows they have their secrets. You hear whispers of tragedy, scandal, and sin, furtively spoken of in hushed tones, punctuated by clucked tongues and sorrowful sighs. They leave an indelible stain, a blight that, while covered over and long forgotten, never goes away.

“Castle Rock,” the new Hulu series based on Stephen King’s prolific horror canon, is set in the small town from hell — possibly literally. The fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, is familiar to King readers. The author has referenced it in many of his stories; “Cujo,” “The Dead Zone,” and several others even take place there. “Castle Rock” the series weaves those stories together in a shared universe of sorts.

While King fans hunting for Easter eggs will find their baskets brimming, fan service and passing references to King’s other works are incidental. The series stands on its own as an original story non-King fans can easily enjoy. Series creators and showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (“Manhattan”) have carefully adapted King’s expansive oeuvre to create a gripping central mystery that stretches into the dark corners of Castle Rock.

Henry Deaver (André Holland) is a death-row lawyer and Castle Rock native who returns home when a young man discovered in a secret cell within the local Shawshank Penitentiary asks for him by name. The “Kid,” played by Bill Skarsgård (“It”), is a gaunt, dark-eyed soul who’s spent years trapped in a literal hole by the prison’s previous warden, played by Terry O’Quinn (“Lost”)

O’Quinn’s Warden Lacy, who we come to know via flashback after he commits suicide in the pilot episode, is a seemingly compassionate person whose imprisonment of the Kid is motivated by divine calling — he claims God told him to imprison the Kid in order to end the evil that has plagued Castle Rock.

Henry’s return is complicated by his own mysterious past, which involves his disappearance into the wilderness as a child and the death of his adopted father. He also must care for his senile mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and her companion Alan (Scott Glenn), a retired sheriff who’s keeping Lacy’s secrets.

Melanie Lynskey plays Molly, Henry’s troubled childhood friend with psychic powers, which she blunts by popping Vicodin. She’s often accompanied by Jackie (Jane Levy), another local who knows the town’s secrets and doles them out in exposition-heavy sequences.

While performances are solid, there is a bit of derivativeness in characterization. Both O’Quinn and Glenn’s characters resemble former roles. O’Quinn’s divinely inspired Lacy is not unlike his John Locke from “Lost,” who was also driven by a higher, possibly malevolent calling. Glenn, who played a gruff, secretive police officer on “The Leftovers,” is doing a similar dance here.

Indeed, you can see shades of both “Lost” and “The Leftovers” in “Castle Rock,” with its mysterious location and quasi-religious/supernatural themes. While it does seem interested in going down the rabbit hole in exploring its own mythology à la “Lost,” I’m not sure it’s poised to be as ambitious or artful as “The Leftovers.” That said, the first season boasts a stable of game directors, including Michael Uppendahl (“Legion,” “Fargo,” “Mad Men”), so it may yet deliver.

After three episodes, a vague sense of menace and dread permeates “Castle Rock,” but the real threat at the heart of the Castle Rock mystery remains undefined. That may be a deliberate choice, but the tension can only be sustained for so long before it dissipates. So far, the show seems to be telling us we should be scared but has yet given us any tangible thrills. If it’s going stay true to King’s knack for telling truly terrifying stories, it needs to deliver.

CHECK IT OUT

New episodes of “Castle Rock” are released on Hulu every Wednesday.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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