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'Castle Rock' review: Stephen King Hulu series starts slow, but gets better

Andre Holland stars in Hulu's "Castle Rock."

Andre Holland stars in Hulu's "Castle Rock." Photo Credit: Hulu/Patrick Harbron

SERIES "Castle Rock"

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Wednesday, July 25, on Hulu.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Henry Deaver (André Holland, "Moonlight") returns to his hometown of Castle Rock, Maine, after he gets a mysterious request to present a habeas corpus — or demand that a person under arrest is brought before a judge — for a prisoner at the local Shawshank State Prison. This prisoner (Bill Skarsgård, "It") has no name, no background and no affect. He's deeply strange, and had been secretly imprisoned by the former warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O'Quinn). While back in town, Henry learns about the progessive dementia of his mom, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), and that an old family friend, Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn), has moved in with her. He also re-connects with his childhood pal and next-door neighbor, Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey). Like Pangborn, she knows something about Henry's own secret — why he disappeared for eleven days back in 1991.  

This 10-parter — created by Stephen King, Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason and produced by J.J. Abrams — is set in the King universe, and based in Castle Rock — the town of other novels, like "Cujo" — linking various King characters, stories and themes.   

MY SAY Almost perfectly pleasant on the outside, depraved and rotten on the inside, Castle Rock is the Stephen King Potemkin village we've all visited many times before — or fans certainly have — in about a dozen novels and short stories. There's something off about the locals, these closefisted Mainers with their pasty complexions untouched by a warm sun, and their souls frozen as hard as the ground in December. Something is evil here, something or someone.

After all these years with this fictional Maine setting — or obsession — you'd think King would've moved on to a different state by now, or some place more normal than paranormal, like (say) Delaware. But fans know better, and King, too. It's all here in Castle Rock, one of the epicenters of the King universe and imagination. Besides, his Maine isn't so much a state as a state of mind, where the mysteries of human perception don't yield easily or at all to rational explanation. This makes the dark corners in that archetypal dark house not just dark but impenetrable and unknowable.

Hulu's "Castle Rock" brings viewers back to Castle Rock and its dark houses with a trail of Easter eggs laid out like a trail of crumbs. Some are subtle. For example, the aria that O'Quinn's Dale Lacy listens to early in the opener is "Canzonetta sull'aria" from Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" — the same one Andy (Tim Robbins) played over prison loudspeakers in "The Shawshank Redemption." (Shawshank Prison figures prominently in "Castle Rock," and so does a suicide.) Others are obvious: Glenn's Pangborn was Castle Rock sheriff in another King adaptation ("Needful Things") while Skarsgård and Spacek played the canonical King characters Pennywise and Carrie. 

Lynskey and Holland, along with their characters, are new to the King universe, but they fit right in here. Molly Strand, with her "shining" talent (or what appears to be something like that), is someone we've seen facets of before. Meanwhile, Holland's Deaver exists in some sort unsettled quantum state, as both Castle Rock outsider and insider, and as high-minded idealist and someone with a closet full of Castle Rock skeletons of his own.

His blackness instantly sets him apart from the whiteness of this eccentric crowd. He's a stranger in a particularly strange land, and Deaver's puzzled eyes reveal what his heart already knows — he's alienated, isolated, utterly alone. Alienation is usually a desolate place, except in the King universe where everyone is alienated to some degree. That makes their fate all the more tragic, or frightening.

 Is "Castle Rock" in fact scary? Over the first four episodes, not really. It's mostly portentous and (occasionally) plodding. The story picks up momentum in later episodes, and direction, too. That trail of crumbs is definitely leading somewhere, and you'll find yourself wanting to find out where. It will not be — spoiler alert — a happy place.

BOTTOM LINE Starts slow and gets better — while an excellent cast (and lead, in Holland) front a story that's a little more psychological than supernatural in the early going.  

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