11:30 am EST, July 12, 2018

‘Castle Rock’ review: A gripping new thriller for Stephen King fans and newbies alike

Castle Rock ushers in a chilling new series that will captivate fans of Stephen King and true crime documentary lovers.

What if you could take a fictional place, one where pre-established events have already played out and run their course, and build a new story all your own? What would you do there? When choosing the fictional town of Castle Rock as their starting off point, Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason decided that Stephen King’s landscape was the perfect launching point for their original story.

And while the prison, town, and even a few newspaper clippings draw up memories of King’s previous works — the story itself is all new.

Basic plot points include a person appearing in an abandoned wing of Shawshank following the departure of a Castle Rock figure head. This prompts the return of Henry Deaver, a lawyer, to his hometown after a mysterious call from inside the prison requests his presence.

Now, as a novice when it comes to all things Stephen King, I admit that I was headed into the series with some major blindspots. For instance, in Castle Rock season 1, episode 1, which I started watching after 8:00 p.m., as a guard explores an abandoned section of Shawshank State Prison I quickly decided to wait for daylight to go any further.

Castle Rock season 1 episode 1 shawshank

In a nutshell, I do not do well with horror. Beyond The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile my exposure to King’s works is limited at best. I know the premise of Cujo can attest that Tim Curry’s Pennywise once caught me off guard on cable TV and I didn’t watch that particular channel again for months just in case.

Like our protagonist, Henry Deaver (André Holland), I am a blank slate when it comes to the new (and some of the old) events that plague Castle Rock, Maine. The familiar landscape of his youth is skewed with new uncertainty as various residents of the town including Deaver’s mother suffer through their own afflictions.

To assign identifying traits to any of the specific characters would give away too much of the plot the season premiere, and subsequent episodes, set up. But suffice to say that Castle Rock is as much of a character study than a jump-cut thriller.

Castle Rock season 1 episode 1 cage

But that word, “thriller,” touted in all the promotional materials, does in fact apply to the mental gymnastics each character performs each episode. There are the stoic and unflinching old guards of the town and judicial system, the terrified young guns trying to get by, and the seemingly supernatural personas.

That’s not to say that some gorier imagery and suspenseful sequences are lacking. For instance, there is one particularly unsettling scene in episode 3 that could either lead to an entirely new layer of this town being exposed, or it could just be a result of the oddities of growing up in this small town in Maine.

Who is coping with the entrapment of Castle Rock and who is in on what is going on behind the scenes? This seems to be the overarching question that haunts the series and likely one that may not see an answer. And I think that speaks to the fact that fans of King’s work are shaping the story.

Having questions about anything your a fan of, typically start with two words — “What if?” And just because you have license to explore those questions doesn’t mean you will wind up any closer to an answer than the creator. Sometimes breadcrumbs just lead to an abandoned bag of bread.

Perhaps the best bit of Castle Rock is that it offers the same satisfaction as watching a true crime documentary. There are Wikipedia pages to visit, books to pull from the shelves for reference, but you’re not likely to find any answers no matter how much digging you do.

After four episodes, and plenty of reading on both Wikipedia and a few fan sites, I’m left with more questions than answers. More desire to read Cujo than I ever thought possible, and a viewing of The Shawshank Redemption is definitely on the horizon.

Some final thoughts —

The casting is incredible: Still mourning the loss of the brilliant HBO series The Leftovers, Scott Glenn’s role in Castle Rock might give the patriarch of the Garvey family a run for his money. André Holland serves as the perfect skeptic-guide for our journey into the series. Sissy Spacek, Melanie Lynskey, and especially Bill Skarsgård are brilliant foils for our protagonist.

Cinematography: Michael Uppendahl’s direction of the series’ premiere sets a tone for the rest of the series — twisted, a bit hazy, and vividly jarring when it needs to be.

IT: After watching Skarsgård in this, I have no desire to go anywhere near IT.

Overall, a solid series jam-packed with enough mystery to sustain at least a captivating freshman season that I look forward to watching with the lights on!

Castle Rock season 1, episode 1 premieres on Hulu July 25 along with episodes 2 and 3.

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