To say much of anything about “Castle Rock” teeters on the precipice of spoiler territory, since so much of the Hulu anthology series is inspired by preexisting properties, each with their own devoted fandom. Within the first few scenes of the premiere, there are enough references to Stephen King’s oeuvre to keep Jack Torrance typing “all work and no play” until the homicidal maniac actually becomes a dull boy. Said references will go unidentified in this review (no, “The Shining” allusion isn’t meant as a hint), but known characters, events, and most prominently, settings, keep coming back up throughout four utterly absorbing episodes.
So it should be doubly encouraging to know what’s best about Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason’s follow-up to “Manhattan” is what’s new. The original stories told within Castle Rock — King’s oft-visited Maine town from novels like “The Dead Zone,” “Cujo,” and “Needful Things” — are mysterious and haunting; they can be unsettling and bloody; there are images ripped straight from nightmares, but not any nightmares you read in the ’80s or saw in a Frank Darabont film.
In weaving together the Stephen King multiverse, as the press notes refer to it, “Castle Rock” prioritizes human stories, just as the author does, and it makes for a gripping drama as well as a rewarding scavenger hunt; devotees should be pleased as much as those who’ve never picked up one of the King of horror’s weighty tomes. “Castle Rock” extricates itself from nostalgic traps while capitalizing on past stories to create a compelling new narrative filled with mysteries worthy of their muse.
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To preserve these surprises — the easter eggs, yes, but more so the creators’ fresh narratives — here’s what little story is safe to share: The first season of “Castle Rock” primarily tracks Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a defense attorney working in Texas who’s lured back to his home town by an unexplained call for help. There he finds his old next door neighbor, Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), his mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), her friend (who occasionally sleeps over) Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), and a few other choice locals who somehow connect to Henry’s task at hand.
Bill Skarsgård (“It”) plays the most pivotal man to Henry’s return, but other than saying he’s a prisoner at Shawshank Penitentiary — which is divulged in the trailer — there’s not much more to be mentioned. Each of these performers is either already a legend or coming off gigs that piqued fans’ curiosity. Holland, in his first series regular role since “The Knick,” does not disappoint; Lynskey, returning to the small screen after “Togetherness,” is asked to do a lot, quickly, and delivers; Scott Glenn may have done career-best work in “The Leftovers,” and he’s an instantly magnetic presence here.
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Both Skarsgård and Spacek have a history with King’s work: Skarsgård in the biggest box office smash of the big screen adaptations, “It,” and Spacek in one of his earliest cinematic interpretations to catch fire, “Carrie.” Though the young actor’s role offers nearly limitless potential (and he’s working effectively early on, from the inside out), it’s the cagey veteran who may be the most intriguing member of the stacked cast. There will be much to discuss with Ruth as the episodes tick by, and there’s already a lot to admire about Spacek’s post-“Bloodline” mom; she’s not a betrayed housewife anymore, but an active player in a dramatic game.
Like the new roles assumed by two well-known actors in the King cannon, so too does “Castle Rock” find new life in an old world. It would have been easy to let this show dip too far into fan service, with every episode ending in an homage and each narrative step leading toward a favorite King moment. Instead, greater importance is placed on discovery. After all, a mystery shouldn’t be repurposing old stories to shock you; its climaxes need to come out of nowhere, and “Castle Rock” builds them well, early in its 10-episode run.
For a show that could’ve been dominated by its origins, “Castle Rock” sure has a good time breathing new life into them. Smart, fun scares; deeply felt, well-founded characters; layers of story to decipher, along with the references — what more could you want in a new piece of the Stephen King library?
“Castle Rock” premieres July 25 on Hulu. New episodes are released Wednesdays.