Review: ‘Castle Rock’ Is Too Haunted by Its Past

Posted July 24, 2018 6:42 p.m. EDT

A few weeks ago, I finally saw “Avengers: Infinity War.” I liked it fine. I did not love it, though, anything like the guy two seats over from me, who howled and clapped and, over and over, pointed out to his date the callbacks to the comic books and approximately 5,000 other Marvel movies that converged into this one.

You could argue that, really, we were not even watching the same film. For me, a very casual Marvel fan, “Infinity War” was a decent bad-guy-assembling-a-doomsday-weapon showdown story.

But for my neighbor, it was as if Thanos had twiddled the perception-altering reality stone on his Armageddon gauntlet, unveiling a manifestation of the movie rich in detail and reward, strewn with delicious Easter eggs. We were watching “Infinity War” in the same space, but on entirely different planes.

This phenomenon of two audiences, one completist and one novice, is a constant these days, not just in movies but in a TV business reliant on adaptations and pre-existing intellectual property. “Game of Thrones,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Outlander,” “The Walking Dead” and the Netflix “Defenders” mega-series all test the proposition of whether a show can serve two masses.

All of which brings me to Hulu’s “Castle Rock,” beginning Wednesday, a version of which I am about to review for you. But only my version.

“Castle Rock” is based on the work of Stephen King. If the title — the author’s fictional Maine stomping ground — is not clue enough, the opening titles feature close-ups of pages from “Salem’s Lot,” “The Green Mile” and “The Shining.” It is as if you are about to fall into the pages of his novels — books, beloved by millions, that I have not read.

It is not like I am unexposed to the work of Stephen King. I live in America; “Stand By Me” and “Carrie” may as well be articles of the Constitution. I have enjoyed some of his books’ screen adaptations, like Hulu’s “11.22.63” from 2016. But I am not a superfan. At best, maybe a medium fan.

“Castle Rock” is an original work (King is a producer) that borrows from his oeuvre. And while the series is ostensibly created for obsessive and newbie alike, the first episodes — heavy on atmosphere but weak on character — feel like the creators expecting affection for his past creations to do a lot of the work.

At Shawshank state prison — that reference I get! — the warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), has developed a theory about the malignancy afflicting the town, involving a nameless prisoner (Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise from the recent adaptation of “It”), being held in apparently extralegal circumstances.

The prisoner’s case draws in Henry Deaver (André Holland), a Texas defense lawyer and Castle Rock native whose hometown memories are, of course, unhappy. He has long been blamed for the suspicious death of the pastor who adopted him. With his mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), fading into dementia, Henry’s only ally in town is his childhood friend, Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey).

Molly, now a jittery, pill-popping adult, has the challenging job of selling real estate in a burg that is both economically depressed and, you know, cursed. As she understatedly puts it to a client, “There is a lot of history in this town, not all of it good.”

“Castle Rock” is smothered by that history. The premiere is all mood and tease. The camera lingers on a name tag, “PANGBORN,” letting Kingophiles know that we are meeting a returning character, the retired town sheriff (now played by Scott Glenn), and sending the rest of us to Google.

The impressive cast is rounded out by Allison Tolman, Frances Conroy and Jane Levy. But no character has a chance to develop in the pokey early episodes, which prioritize atmosphere, jump scares and hint-dropping. (The series is produced by J.J. Abrams, of puzzle narratives like “Lost” and “Westworld,” along with Sam Shaw of “Manhattan.”)

Even the mordant dialogue (a victim of decapitation is said to have gotten “10 percent off on the funeral”) does not establish individual character voice so much as a familiar King vibe. You have heard the phrase, “The location is a character”? Here, the town of Castle Rock is an ungenerous co-star, elbowing out its colleagues.

The series improves in the third and fourth hours, each of which focuses on specific citizens and how they have adapted (or not) to life in a town that is struggling and spiritually sick. But almost halfway into a 10-episode season, “Castle Rock” has not made the case that you should care, beyond a generic sense of spooky mystery — or, maybe, a pre-existing attachment to the Stephen King Extended Universe.

That is where I need to leave it to you. “Castle Rock” — certainly well-acted and produced, with some striking set pieces — may work well for completists. But it is not so successful as TV.

I have come to series familiar with the source texts (“Game of Thrones”) and unfamiliar (“Legion”). I do not think either approach is superior, but both should be possible. Once you adapt a work or a milieu for a new medium, it needs to work alone, not as a reproduction of another text or someone’s memories. Otherwise, you have not made a TV series; you have made a DVD extra.

Certainly you can pull this sort of thing off, as did “Fargo” (“Castle Rock,” but for the Coen Brothers), or “Stranger Things,” a series essentially built of memories that nonetheless puts its original characters’ voices first.

“Castle Rock,” on the other hand, falls to a distinctively Castle Rockian fate. Its town’s history is just too much for it to escape.

Production notes:

‘Castle Rock’

Wednesday on Hulu