SDCC 2018: The CASTLE ROCK Pilot Evokes Classic Stephen King

The world premiere of JJ Abrams and Hulu's venture into a serialized Kingverse is pretty impressive.

Note: This post contains spoilers for Castle Rock.

1991. Castle County Sheriff Alan Pangborn finds young Henry Deaver (Caleel Davis) – a boy who's been missing in the middle of a frigid Maine winter for so long they've stopped calling it a "search" on the radio and switched to labeling it a "recovery" – standing on the middle of a frozen Dark Score Lake, roughly seventy miles outside of town. Terrified the kid's going to fall through the thin, icy surface and expire in the subzero water below, the lawman risks his life by racing out and pulling Deaver back to warmth and safety in his truck, completely befuddled by how the boy's still alive, having not seemingly eaten or drank anything in eleven days. 

2018. It's Shawshank Prison Warden Dale Lacy's (Terry O'Quinn) last day on the job before taking a buyout from the corrections institute and retiring to make his lovely wife Martha (Myra Turley) breakfast in bed for the rest of their time together. After serving up the morning's plate of eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee, Dale kisses Martha goodbye and heads out. Only instead of clocking in for work, he drives to the same body of water where Henry was found, parks his car at the edge of a cliff, and places a hangman's noose around his neck. Just as a curious pooch comes up over the ridge, Lacy smiles and guns the gas, the rope snapping his neck, showering the dash with plasma, before his anonymous sedan sails into the murky waters below. 

Welcome back to Castle Rock, the foggy, ostensibly quiet Maine hamlet that fans of Stephen King's spooky texts know all too well (and gifts its name to Hulu's next stab at a hit prestige series). First serving as the setting for psychic schoolteacher Johnny Smith's world-saving premonitions of assassination, before providing the central backdrop for thirteen other works – along with being casually mentioned in scores of King's other freaky-deaky printed shriek shows – Castle Rock was eventually burned and bombed out at the conclusion of Needful Things (which probably not so coincidentally was published in October of '91). With a quick helicopter shot, series creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason (along with EP JJ Abrams) welcome us back to a place that always felt like home, even when it scared the shit out of the horror master’s nigh innumerable Constant Readers. 

Change is now coming to the Rock, as a new Warden (Ann Cusack) has been assigned to take over the infamous former home of Andy Dufresne following Lacy’s funeral. When guard Dennis Zalewski (Noel Fisher) informs her that Block F has been empty ever since the fire in '87, she sends him down in the dark to count the beds. What the warden didn't expect was Zalewski discovering a secret hatch that leads to a hidden, solitary cell, containing a Chock Full O' Nuts can filled with stubbed butts, a Bible, and a nameless, emaciated, mute prisoner (Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgård) who asks to speak with only one man: "Henry Deaver." 

Now a death row attorney in Texas (and played by Moonlight's André Holland), Deaver gets called back to his hometown by a nosy Zalewski, where his senile adpoted mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) now lives with her boyfriend, former cop Alan Pangborn (the craggily perfect Scott Glenn). The typical reluctant hero, Henry's not willing to stay in the haunted borough he left long ago, but he's also a man of principle when it comes to human rights, and if Shawshank mistreated an inmate, the boy in the hole should at least be afforded the right to an attorney. All the while, folks - including the PR-minded warden - all whisper about Henry Deaver, once again strolling into town like Tom Sawyer on an adventure. For Henry was the boy who lived, while his father died of a broken back in the snow behind their home (a crime many believe Deaver was running from when he disappeared into the woods that wintry Maine day). 

The first episode of Castle Rock (titled "Severance") is almost entirely expositional, establishing the intersecting central mysteries, characters and this nexus of evil: the town itself. Yet it's the vibe of the show that matters most, and really sinks its teeth into viewers during this inaugural hour. Director Michael Uppendahl – who's helmed installments of everything from Mad Men to Fargo to American Horror Story – establishes a superlative aura of foggy pulp, that will bring Constant Readers back to just about damn near everything but the smell of those early, creaky King hardbacks. Thomas Newman's score mixes perfectly with the ominous, foreboding, blue tinted-cinematography, easily transporting many to a place they've been picturing in their minds for going on four decades. By the time we meet pill-popping "MILF" (without any actual kids) Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey) – who (of course) shares an eerie, possibly supernatural, connection with Henry – we're all but waiting for King's blue-collar campfire tale prose to be assigned its own voiceover. 

There’s certainly an element of “fan fiction” to Castle Rock, as a few winky in-jokes fly by – including one about the bullet that killed Shawshank’s former Warden Norton – and the presence of Skarsgård as a potential malevolent force, watching silently as rats get stuck in traps set up in his cell, certainly ties this project (inadvertently or not) to the modern King cinematic canon. Nevertheless, Holland lends it an air of class that smooths over any sort of silliness that may arise via overindulgent homage. Likewise, Diehards may take issue with Pangborn’s presence – as it certainly calls into question where this Castle Rock falls on the timeline of the Kingverse, if at all – but watching Glenn create another sinewy tough guy is hard to argue against in the name of decades-old fictional continuity.

Based on the first hour, is Castle Rock worth your time? Undoubtedly. There’s a richness to this story that’s sensed right off the bat, as is Abrams’ penchant for “mystery box” storytelling. The final moments leave us on a cliffhanger that, were the next nine episodes online, this writer would’ve raced home to binge for the remainder of the weekend. We just hope that the Castle Rock teams provides some satisfying answers to these questions, as the saga of Henry Deaver and the skinny boy they found in that Shawshank hole has the potential to stand shoulder-to-should with King’s own classic fiction.

Castle Rock premieres exclusively on Hulu July 25th.