This Castle Rock review does not contain spoilers.
Castle Rock Episode 1
It’s not easy being a Stephen King adaptation, especially when you’re not really adapting any one of the King of Horror’s stories to begin with. Castle Rock showrunners Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (Manhattan) are attempting something way more ambitious than that: a series that unites several elements from King’s long list of works in a story set in one of the writer’s most haunted fictional towns.
Shaw and Thomason told me last October that their goal with Castle Rock was “to explore and interpret the Stephen King library for TV in a slightly different way. Which is to say, not take one book and retell The Shining for television, but to try to adapt Stephen King almost as a genre onto himself.”
It’s the essence of King the show is after, and for the most part, it does a good job of focusing in on what makes his stories so memorable in the first place: the characters. Castle Rock‘s quirky and creepy characters shine in its premiere episode, “Severance,” especially those played by Bill Skarsgard, who just recently brought the demonic clown Pennywise to life in Andy Muschietti’s excellent IT adaptation, and Moonlight‘s Andre Holland.
The latter plays death row attorney Henry Deaver, a man with a mysterious and macabre past, one that haunts him even hundreds of miles away from his hometown. Holland puts in a calculated performance. He plays it cool as the troubled attorney but also reveals just enough about Henry’s inner darkness to keep us invested.
Sissy Spacek, who you should all know as the star of Carrie, pops up as Henry’s mother, Ruth. We only get a brief taste of her character, but any Spacek at all is good TV. Scott Glenn’s (Daredevil) Alan Pangborn, another famous King character, and Terry O’Quinn’s (Lost) Dale Lacy round out the cast. One character I’m really excited to see more of is Molly Strand, played by Melanie Lynskey, who previously appeared on another King show, Rose Red. We meet her in “Severance” but don’t really get to spend any time with her. Overall, the cast feels really solid.
There’s not much I can say about Skarsgard’s character without spoiling the premiere, unfortunately – although you can probably gather a few things about him from the trailers released by Hulu thus far. The point is that Skarsgard’s introduction is what brings Henry back to the evidently cursed town. It’s also what saves this episode from being a slightly dull hour of television.
Sprinkled throughout “Severance” is the creepy imagery you’d expect from a series inspired by King’s work, but these moments are few and far between. The best of the episode comes courtesy of the show’s version of Shawshank State Penitentiary, the prison that marks the town’s most iconic landmark – at least if you’re a longtime King fan.
Castle Rock does right by the prison best known as the setting of Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption, which itself is an adaptation of King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The people in charge of the prison are still crooked as hell and become easy to hate from the start. Most impressive is the way Shaw and Thomason use the familiar corruption within the prison’s walls to explore modern concerns such as the prison-industrial complex, specifically the dangers behind the privatization of detention facilities.
It’s in showing this corruption that Castle Rock is most successful, not just because these are issues that need to be discussed, but because it showcases in its storytelling another strength of King’s approach to characters: that “normal” people are ultimately more horrifying than the monsters. Already in its first episode, the show establishes a formidable villain – not a creature with a taste for human flesh but a grotesque corporate steward.
Some might be turned off by the show’s obvious political leanings – race is also discussed, especially when it comes to Henry’s blackness in a predominantly white community – but I’d argue that horror is at its best when tackling things that challenge and scare us in real life. (Get Out and It Follows are two great examples.)
All that said, things get a bit dull at times in “Severance” and much of it has to do with its pacing. The pilot tries to introduce too many elements within the confines of an hour, which means that some parts fall flat or feel disconnected from the whole. Still, Castle Rock gives me just enough to keep me invested. Even as I write this, I’m excited to turn to the next page and see what happens next. In the end, isn’t that what being a King fan is all about?
John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Follow him on Twitter.