‘Castle Rock’ delivers scares, locks storytelling out of sight

Castle Rock
Patrick Harbron /Courtesy

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Everything ‘80s is ripe for an update, a revamp, a reboot. So why not a large swath of Stephen King tales all at once?

“Castle Rock” is an original horror web television series, based on the stories and settings of horror author Stephen King. It sets out to weave a new web of psychological and supernatural fright around the existing locale, with reference and respect to existing characters and events.

A good example: The second episode opens with sweeping overhead shots of the town and a voice-over from Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), warden of Shawshank State Penitentiary, recounting all the tragic events in the history of Castle Rock, referencing “the dog” and “the strangler” — homages to “Cujo,” King’s 1981 novel about a rabid dog loose in the town.

Castle Rock has been a mainstay of King’s fiction since its first appearance in his 1979 novel “The Dead Zone. It is a misty Maine town of 1,500 people. In this recent web series, Castle Rock becomes a foil to the plans of the protagonists — the whole town and its inhabitants seem to go out of their way to remain devout, macabre and unmoving.

The series came about as a collaboration between Hulu, J.J. Abrams and Stephen King. This is the second collaboration between Abrams, King and Hulu, following the eight-episode series “11.22.63” in early 2016.

“Castle Rock” opens with a flashback to 1991, when a child, Henry Deaver (André Holland), is rescued off a frozen lake by Alan J. Pangborn (Scott Glenn) after running away from home and being alone in the woods of Castle Rock for 11 days. In 2018, the warden of Shawshank State Penitentiary, Castle Rock’s largest employer, takes his own life by driving into the same lake. This allows for Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy), an executive at a private prison corporation aiming to join the board of directors, to take over operations at Shawshank.

Like nearly all King properties, there’s more lying beneath the surface of the horror. “Misery” shined not only because of its excruciating sense of isolation and dependance, but because of Paul Sheldon’s creative struggles fueled by a painkiller addiction. “Castle Rock” begins to hint at an addiction subplot, an addition to the series that makes it feel more King-esque. But this is just one of the many directions the writing of the show reaches toward.

The show begs comparisons to both “Twin Peaks” and “American Horror Story,” which are echoed in “Castle Rock” by its adherence to a small-town mentality and a small cast. The storytelling of “Castle Rock” doesn’t do much to improve on the horror tropes explored by “American Horror Story” — it would have been nice to see something more character-driven, in recognition of King’s strong determinations and one-note-to-a-fault characters.

This show is another example of TV from the past decade that flaunts its horror and hides its flaws behind an immense production budget that ultimately doesn’t pay off. Many shots are cinematic and expansive. The lighting is pristine, but it changes so drastically from scene to scene that the visuals lack cohesion. The desaturated and pooled-shadow grays of Shawshank sculpt it into an effective atmosphere, but they exist a world apart from the inky blues of Molly’s (Melanie Lynskey) creak-ridden and often ransacked house. The many individual directions struggle to add up to a cohesive whole.

“Castle Rock” is worth it for a few good spooks but ultimately fails to leave a lasting impression. It suffers from pursuing every idea at once and emphasizing the town over the characters. The writing of the series struggles to cover such a wide territory that it neglects the basic elements of King’s writing — bold characters and strong storytelling.

Contact Patrick Tehaney at [email protected]. Tweet him at @patricktehaney.