Hello, my Creeps! and welcome to the inaugural review for Kill the Dead’s television horror. It is always a challenge deciding where to begin, especially when it’s that time of year where the networks (and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu) ramp up their ghastly offerings. This entry was meant to be posted a while ago, but for a variety of reasons (exacerbated by a hurricane) it was postponed.
This summer Hulu released another 10-episode series from the iconic Stephen King. Fans of King’s canon will find that Castle Rock is familiar, being the setting for such works as Cujo, The Dead Zone, and (of course) The Shawshank Redemption. Fear not, dear reader, if you are a novice to King you do not need knowledge of these classics to follow the story. While the setting is familiar, the story is new.
The story begins with the suicide of the current warden of Shawshank State Penitentiary, Dale Lacey (Terry O’Quinn). When new management comes to take the helm, a mysterious kid is found locked away in a cellblock abandoned after a fire that killed all its inmates. Seeking answers, warden Theresa Porter (Ann Cusack) questions the Kid, whose only words were a name – Henry Deaver. Turns out that Henry Deaver is a death-row attorney working out of Texas, and an anonymous phone call brings him cross-country to his hometown where he will meet with his newest client.
It is hard to talk about what was great, and what was lacking, about Castle Rock. The idea of a multiverse is not new and is in fact a big part of the early entries of the Dark Tower series. There are even theories floating around the internet that the creature from It is behind all the malevolence that takes place at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. However, unless you are familiar with this style of storytelling, it can leave you feeling lost while watching Castle Rock. In speaking with colleagues who are fans of King’s other works, a handful voiced frustration at the call-backs to previous episodes and time-loops. This is understandable – there is A LOT happening in this short series. If you can sit tight and push through the show, I believe you will find the experience rewarding.
One thing I must talk about is the acting. Sissy Spacek delivered one of the most moving performances throughout this show. Without spoiling too much (yes, SPOILERS), her character is dealing with dementia as well as time-loops. The moments of confusion and terror that her lapses in time cause are heart-wrenching, and so believable. When she is in a scene, you forget that you are watching an actor and are captivated by her struggle (and occasionally her triumphs). Andre Holland gave a solid performance – being the rock for this ensemble cast of characters who seem to have a tenuous attachment to reality. Melanie Lynskey was so perfectly cast as the neurotic realtor/childhood friend to Holland’s Henry, supportive and yet anxiety stricken and dependent on her little blue pills. However, this review would not be complete without a nod to Bill Skarsgård’s performance. I think that he was a brilliant choice to play “the kid” for two reasons: 1) he looks haunted and hard to read, which fits with his character arc, and 2) because I give credence to the internet idea that the malevolent forces at work in It are at play in Castle Rock, and how best to allude to that than by casting your monster in both stories? For most of the episodes, the kid hardly says more than a sentence – that is until you get to the final two episodes. It is this alternate universe episode that really shows Skarsgård’s abilities to get into the thick of what King is trying to communicate to the audience. For the acting alone, this series gets a solid 3 stars. What follows is the icing on the cake that pushes this to a 4-star rating from me.
What really sold this for me (and is the thing that I think makes psychological horror extra effective) was the cinematography and mood setting that the directors captured. I really felt that there was something sort of off with this town and its people. The forest seems to have a life of its own, adding to the haunted (in the emotional sense and not the ghoulish sense) vibes you get when any of our main characters are traipsing around the lake in the day or night. The forest is more like a supporting character. It is the place where some of the major events that push the story along happen, and it would just feel wrong if they took place anywhere else. Parts of the town felt more fleshed out that others, and that was a bit annoying to me. I wanted to say that it was because of the short format that the town sort of felt flat, but that was not the case when watching 11-22-63 which was released in the same 10-episode format. Maybe it was because there was so much that had to happen in the forest and at the Deaver residence that there was no opportune moment to really dip you toes into the town. Castle Rock – as a location – felt like it was a bit like the set of an old western, where you know that the store fronts are just plywood painted up real nice. Internet chatter speculates that this was done so that the future of Castle Rock would be open for other new stories set in the multiverse, but it was disappointing considering there was so much character in other locations. To put it more succinctly, it felt like a collection of places put into a bag and labeled as a town. It lacked community and the other components of a location that make it feel alive.
All-in-all, this was a fun and confusing ride of a show. If you like psychological horror, this one is for you. If you prefer your horror in the form of gore, jump-scares, or edgy fast-paced creatures (I’m looking at you Pennywise of 2017), this might be a bit of a let-down. All I can say is be patient and you will be rewarded.
Blessings from the Florida-Man to all of you Creeps out there.
-Jules, the Mad Professor
P.S. I’m all about Jackie heading out to the Overlook Hotel in future seasons of Castle Rock, or a spin-off series.