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Hulu’s Castle Rock gets what makes Stephen King so scary

The key isn’t monsters and mayhem so much as exploring the horrible things humans are capable of.

Bill Skarsgard is back in Stephen King territory as “the Kid” in Hulu’s Castle Rock.
Bill Skarsgard is back in Stephen King territory as “the Kid” in Hulu’s Castle Rock.

Stephen King knows how to cook up a scare. The key isn’t monsters and mayhem so much as exploring the horrible things normal people are capable of. That’s why Misery’s resolutely human Annie Wilkes is still one of King’s most terrifying villains. It’s also why there’s something grim about the adults in It and their ignorance of or complicity in several children’s plights, even more so than the dancing clown that pursues the kids.

Castle Rock, created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, reinforces that domestic sense of horror. Though the Hulu series doesn’t shy away from the supernatural, its most unsettling elements come from the way its characters begin to twist and turn against each other. Sometimes it’s at the prompting of a greater evil force; sometimes it’s at the prompting of the evil within themselves. It’s when the two mesh that Castle Rock is at its best.

For devotees of King’s work, the title of the series should be familiar, as it refers to the fictional Maine town in which a number of his stories are set, and indeed, almost every resident of Castle Rock features in King’s oeuvre in one way or another. It makes the new series a bit of a game of “spot the story,” but not to worry — a familiarity with King’s work isn’t required to follow along. All you’ll need is a little patience for the myriad storylines to begin to coalesce. At times, it’s a clunky ride, but judging by the four episodes (out of 10) that Hulu sent to critics for review, Castle Rock will be worth the payoff.

Great performances hold the series’ moving parts together

Given just how many different stories are being sliced up and stitched back together to put flesh on the series’ bones, some anchoring is necessary to keep the narrative from breaking apart. At some points, mostly when exposition is necessary, the balance seems tenuous —but Castle Rock boasts some incredible performances that help smooth the show’s seams.

At the center of it all is André Holland as Henry Deaver, a death row attorney who has returned to his home of Castle Rock after a mysterious call tips him off to a strange situation at Shawshank State Penitentiary. As is demanded of at least one primary character in any series like this, Henry is a skeptic, and isn’t immediately inclined to believe there are any supernatural forces at work despite how things in town keep getting weirder and weirder. But as the details of his case — not to mention his personal life — begin to unravel, he’s forced to confront the fact that something may be fundamentally wrong in Castle Rock.

Doubt is arguably one of the most human traits of all, and Deaver’s deeply held skepticism gives Castle Rock a center as other characters begin to succumb to darkness. That darkness is given human form by Bill Skarsgard (recently seen as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in last year’s big-screen adaptation of It). As “the Kid” found in a cage in an abandoned wing of Shawshank — and now Deaver’s newest client — he’s intense in a way that could be read as helplessness and fear, or as a manifestation of pure evil. His duality makes it easy to understand why some of the guards charged with watching him are afraid of him, and why others want to help get him out.

Between the two poles represented by Deaver and the Kid is Noel Fisher as prison guard Dennis Zalewski, giving what is easily one of the most impressive performances on the show despite having a relatively minor role. Zalewski epitomizes what works about Castle Rock; Shawshank is corrupt through and through, with guards regularly abusing the prisoners, but it’s also Castle Rock’s only significant employer.

As Zalewski tells another character early on that if there were a Walmart anywhere nearby, he’d be working there instead, but as things stand, he needs the health care provided by the penitentiary. He’s stuck in a contemporary American horror story, and as he’s pushed and pulled by his environment, his sanity begins to warp. It’s horrifying to watch, especially as that change doesn’t suddenly make him unrecognizable, or unsympathetic.

The more human the characters and their conflicts are, the more terrifying they become

The closer Castle Rock hits to home, the scarier it gets, and the show is full of very true-to-life horrors.

The hold that Shawshank has over the town — and the way it’s run as a private prison — isn’t born entirely out of fiction, as America has the largest prison population in the world, and its prison system is notoriously fraught.

Then there’s the fact that Castle Rock’s population is, as one character puts it, “lily white.” Deaver is the only person of color in town, and while his singular status is easy enough to forget when he’s on his own, it’s jarring when he’s around other people. It doesn’t help that other characters often comment on his race in a way that comes uncomfortably close to how such scenarios play out in real life.

As Deaver’s adoptive mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) struggles with her memory and fails to recognize who he is, she attempts to put him at ease by telling him that she’s not like the others in town, that she even adopted a black son. Moments like this, which touch on the way Castle Rock is decaying as an isolated relic of American history, are more unsettling than those that suggest a supernatural curse is what’s really affecting the people who live there.

These moments, of course, require more buildup than simply casting a spell. (Don’t worry, Castle Rock doesn’t have anything so literal as that.) Pacing this buildup isn’t a process that the show always nails, but when it goes to the trouble of leaving clues instead of dumping a lot of exposition on the audience all at once, it’s transporting. Deaver’s story is doled out piece by piece, as is the rising timbre of Zalewski’s distress, and the resulting tension is one of the best things about the show.

It helps, too, that the musical cues have a David Lynchian quality to them; Lynch staple Roy Orbison even makes an aural appearance. A soundtrack full of cheerful oldies laid over the rotting guts of Castle Rock makes for a cognitive dissonance that brings to mind the delirium of not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, which feels fitting given that the characters of Castle Rock frequently find themselves stuck in an emotional rut. It’s a uniquely human conundrum, which is what ultimately makes the series tick.

King’s work is at its most frightening when its monsters are more familiar than abstract, reminiscent of the darkness we might encounter every day in others and in ourselves. Castle Rock manages to capture the fear that comes from recognizing that darkness, and as long as the show doesn’t get too preoccupied with the more conventional horrors lurking just offscreen, it may just become the scariest series on TV.

The first three episodes of Castle Rock are now streaming on Hulu. Going forward, new episodes will be released weekly on Wednesdays.