Stephen King is a one-man Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a Thanos down every suburban street. For decades, the Master of Horror has terrified readers — and moviegoers, via many mixed-bag movie adaptations — by rounding up an army of telepathic prom queens, demons in denim jackets, killer cars, rabid dogs, ancient vampires, cannibalistic clowns et al. and setting them loose in small-town America.
One imaginary burg, however, has gotten more than its fair share of these pestilential residents: Castle Rock, Maine, a quaint New England municipality that’s doubled as the nexus of stories ranging from The Dead Zone to The Shawshank Redemption. Created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason — with superproducer J.J. Abrams riding shotgun — this Hulu show is a new kind of visit to King’s old haunt. It’s an attempt to remix his settings, characters and concepts into a standalone series, staying true to his tone and scattering a heaping helping of Easter eggs along the way. And as the pilot (titled “Severance,” a twisted pun on the episode’s catalytic decapitation) progresses, an overarching narrative slowly starts to take shape.
Once upon a time, a local kid named Henry Deaver disappears in the dead of winter … then reappears in the middle of a frozen lake, with no memory of how he got there. In the present day, the now-grown Deaver is a lawyer representing death-row defendants, one known for losing the majority of his cases. Out of nowhere, he receives an anonymous phone call from Shawshank State Penitentiary (yep, that Shawshank): A young man has been found in a cage, left behind by a retiring warden who committed suicide. The mystery convict is asking for Henry by name.
So the town’s prodigal son returns home. Once there, he finds retired Sheriff Alan Pangborn (the man who rescued him, as well the star of the King novel Needful Things) shacked up with his senile mother — but no sign of “The Kid” (a name familiar to fans of The Stand), whose existence is being covered up by the new warden. Since the pilot ends with him vanishing from his cell and slaughtering his way down the corridor one guard at a time, this ruse isn’t likely to last for long.
If “Severance” is any indication, it’s not the diverse strands of the Stephen King Extended Universe that’s holding this thing together: It’s Moonlight veteran André Holland. Deaver is a just a black American from a lily-white small town, raised with a heaping helping of old-time religion and unexamined trauma. He’s not dreading an encounter with a demonic clown – the lawyer just wants to make sure that his client gets the legal representation the Constitution guarantees. He’s a careworn man trying his best, not a hero undertaking a quest. This is Mr. Holland’s opus: He acts like doesn’t know he’s in a highly anticipated television event from the creators of Lost and The Shining. He makes Castle Rock feel like a drama, not the haunted-house ride at the county fair.
And while Deaver gets the meatiest material this time around, he’s surrounded by actors capable of moral and emotional seriousness. His mom is played by Carrie herself, Sissy Spacek. Pangborn is played by Scott Glenn, who’s brought grizzled gravitas to everything from The Silence of the Lambs to The Leftovers. Molly Strand, the suburbanite pill-popper who briefly shows up? That’s Melanie Lynskey, who hasn’t met a role she couldn’t crush since Heavenly Creatures. Frances Conroy, a solid player in both prestige dramas (Six Feet Under) and guilty genre pleasures (American Horror Story), cameos as Warden Lacy’s blind wife. And the Kid? It’s Bill Skarsgard, dialing his performance as Pennywise from It down several notches but still weird and wall-eyed as ever.
Finally, there’s the not-so-good Warden Lacy, played by Terry O’Quinn. All the emphasis on Lost‘s unanswered questions makes it easy to forget all these years later, but the actor was an absolute godsend for that show — an MVP who could play a wily survivalist, a Wolverinesque badass, a failed hero, a bitter old man and an embodiment of pure evil with equal nuance and skill. Yes, the Warden commits suicide by driving off a cliff with a noose around his neck (“guillotining himself with a Lincoln,” as Henry puts it). But we’re in King Country now and even if you discount supernatural shenanigans, the flashback toward the episode’s end indicates we haven’t seen the last of him.
The real question facing Castle Rock, of course, isn’t what happened to Henry way back when or what’s happening in Shaswhank now. Rather, the most pressing issue is: Will it be, you know, scary? It’s conventional wisdom that King adaptations rarely match the fear on the printed page. Just managing to be a bit spooky was enough to help the recent It movie; Kubrick’s The Shining, the scariest film made from one of his books, is perhaps not coincidentally the least King-like in atmosphere. Can Castle Rock buck the trend?
For the pilot episode, the verdict is mixed. The apparent puzzle-box structure of the show — something that feels wholly alien to King’s steady-as-she-goes deployment of dread — is a big strike against it. Skarsgard looks creepy and his character is apparently a killing machine … but it’s not exactly stuff that gets under your skin. Ditto the new warden, an unfortunate “middle-aged dragon lady” stereotype that actor Ann Cusack gets saddled with. Seemingly throwaway moments, like the stranger standing on a hill who greets Henry with an unexplained “Hey, killer,” are more effective.
In a way, so are the details of contemporary American moral decay that pop up throughout the episode: Texas screwing up a lethal-injection execution that requires an octogenarian con be killed twice; prisons run like investment opportunities; church graveyards dug up and paved over for a buck. Castle Rock appears to understand the importance of man’s inhumanity to man in King’s conception of small-town U.S.A. It’s not relegating it to nostalgia-tinged visions of mean-spirited beat cops and feral bullies, either — it’s updating it for the here and now. If the show keeps tapping that vein, who knows what will come gushing out?