Hulu’s ‘Castle Rock’ Is an Eerie Stephen King Mystery Worth Unraveling

There’s something about small towns that makes them perfect for horror thrillers. Stephen King has known this since his first major novels were published decades ago. Now King is teaming up with Hulu for “Castle Rock,” an eerie drama series that takes place within his own storytelling universe. Again we return to the grey shores of Maine, where cloudy skies hang over terrible happenings. Littered with winks for longtime King fans, but missing the master’s direct touch, the story has enough atmosphere to keep us watching as if turning the page for the next chapter.

As the series opens, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), warden of Shawshank prison, takes his own life in a gruesome car-noose combo. The incident shakes the local community of Castle Rock, which is prone to sudden, disturbing murders and suicides throughout the years. When a new warden takes over, Porter (Anne Cusack), a chilling twist takes place when a nameless young man is found hold up in an underground cage on prison grounds. The man, played by Bill Skarsgård, says nothing except one name, Henry Deaver. Deaver (André Holland) is a capital case lawyer who left Castle Rock years ago after a lifetime haunted by his own, strange disappearance as a child. When a prison guard named Dennis (Noel Fisher), calls Deaver and tells him what’s going on, the lawyer makes his way back home. Deaver reunites with his adoptive mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who is slowly losing her memory, and her current companion and former sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn). Becoming the mysterious Shawshank prisoner’s lawyer, Deaver dives into the man’s mystery which is inevitably linked to his own hazy memories and the darker history of the town.

“Castle Rock” is the latest collaboration between Hulu, King and J.J. Abrams, who produced the streaming service’s magnificent 2016 adaption of King’s “11/22/63,” about a time traveler attempting to stop the JFK assassination. The showrunners here are Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, who are creating what amounts to a little detour within the King universe. Fans of the author (and movie adaptations) will be happy to see the Shawshank prison return, as well as the eerie Maine landscapes recognizable from other King TV yarns from the 1990s like “The Storm of the Century.” What makes the show work is precisely a lot of its ambiance, which has the crafty environment of shows like “The X-Files,” where surroundings add richer layers to the story. The opening scene of the pilot finds a man searching for a missing child in frosted woods, ending with a memorable shot of a vast, frozen lake. Dale Lacy’s suicide over a cliff gets under your skin as opposed to merely being shocking. Shawshank itself looks drearier and dripped in shadows, even the version of the prison in the classic 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption” looks sunnier. There is an effective montage in the second episode showing the various, strange suicides at Castle Rock, including a high school mascot who dives from the school rooftop during a football game. Even when the story itself gets slightly weak (but never bad), these images are effective in a classic horror style.

During the first three episodes there are not many “boo” moments per se, just the uncomfortable sense that Castle Rock is hiding many disturbing secrets. This is when the material truly feels like something conjured by King. Via flashbacks we learn a little more about Deaver and what happened to him when he got lost. Sissy Spacek’s Ruth is interesting because of her tragic vulnerability, as her memory fades and she becomes ever more dependent, while hesitant to revisit the past and answer questions for Deaver. The classic King material begins to creep up when the prison guard, Dennis, starts to feel a strange connection with the Shawshank mystery man, suddenly finding himself assaulted with hallucinations or visions of bloodshed in the jail halls. Like “The Shining” and “The Green Mile,” this is another tale of strange men controlled by unknown forces.

The performances also help make “Castle Rock” intriguing and enjoyable to watch. Anne Cusack’s Porter is an interesting gender switch, as stern wardens have usually been played by men. Cusack has real presence and creates an engaging character. Scott Glenn has recently developed a real knack for playing retired, haunted cops. His Pangborn looks like a twin brother of his retired officer in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” but as always he brings a rugged force to the whole enterprise. It will be interesting to see how Bill Skarsgård develops during the season. For the first episodes he is simply a creepy presence, sitting in the jail, saying more with his bloodshot eyes than with actual dialogue. Holland as Deaver is effective as a lawyer caught in a strange situation, trying to make sense of it all.

“Castle Rock” works like a good thriller to take in chapter by chapter. Its pace wants to pull you into the surroundings of its world, while the layers of the (hard to define) mystery peel off. For fans of Stephen King it’s all in the details, and this is a show for them to relish in catching homages and winks as the new story moves along. For everyone else, it’s a good mystery to follow in anticipation of the payoff.

Castle Rock” season one premieres July 25 on Hulu with new episodes releasing every Wednesday.