Confession time: I'm no expert on Stephen King books. Sure, I read Salem's Lot and Needful Things when I was younger, but that's about it.
The wind howls through a snowbound forest. It's 1991 and a mysterious man loads a gun to search for a missing child. The camera lingers over a name badge reading "Pangbourne". So far, so mystified. Am I supposed to know who this Pangbourne guy is? Is this kid supposed to mean something to me?
Now it's the present day in beautiful Maine, the setting for many of King's stories -- that much I do know. On his last day before retirement, the guy from Lost makes his wife breakfast in bed and takes a horrifying detour on his way to work. Which a bumper sticker reveals to be Shawshank prison.
Hey, I understood that reference!
It's in this gruesome first scene that Castle Rock establishes itself as a story in its own right rather than a collection of references. Sure, King fans -- Kingophiles? Kingisseurs? -- will have a great time debating episode 1 Easter eggs and fan theories on Reddit. But although much of the first episode is set in the prison from the famous King-based movie The Shawshank Redemption, I found I was able to relax and stop worrying about Kingverse lore as nods to history are subtly woven into a disturbing new story.
For example, Shawshank has a spoooooky cell block where a bunch of inmates died. "Nobody goes down there any more", intones a guard. You don't need to do any background reading to know that scary stuff is about to happen.
When an obscene prison-within-the-prison is uncovered, death row attorney Henry Deaver returns to Castle Rock, where he grew up -- and where half the town still blames him for the demise of his much-loved adoptive father. Wandering the half-ruined burg, the camera creeps along with him while he explores mysteries within mysteries, disturbing dark secrets left and right.
Actors Sissy Spacek and Scott Glenn add class to the creepiness. But gradually, amid the growing sense of dread, it dawns on me that Castle Rock itself is the star of the show. Episode 2 opens with a morbid meander through the town's harrowing history, including a bravura camera move prowling a single house where death haunts every room. Arguably, this is a better introduction than the premiere episode's prologue, seeding the idea of a township polluted by evil. Throughout the show, a chopped-up timeline jumping back and forth through the area's bloody backstory compellingly insinuates the buried sins of yesterday are entwined with the mysteries of today.
Castle Rock's slow-burning small-town sinisterness is remarkably similar to HBO's new Sharp Objects, with just a hint of horror-genre schlockiness hovering nearby. A trace of Orange is the New Black's prison politics grounds proceedings, while a dash of the jarring dreaminess of Twin Peaks keeps things weird.
Even though any King references passed me by, I still enjoyed the sense that every throwaway line has some resonance. The show trades on that to an extent, throwing out teasing hints at backstory and worldbuilding to prop up an occasionally dawdling main story. But I liked the sense of a wider world, looking out for little moments that may or may not have been Easter eggs. I found myself mentally noting the blink-and-you-miss-it shot of the eerie Pleasant Dreams Inn, whatever it means. I pondered the significance of Gene Pitney and the Misfits on the soundtrack. I filed away mentions of a rabid dog and a boy's body found on the train tracks. And you better believe I spotted a character named Jackie Torrance.
So you don't need to be a fan to be rocked by Castle Rock. But hey, I might even go and read some of this Stephen King guy.
You can watch the first three episodes on Hulu now, or check out the premiere for free on the Apple TV app.
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