At the edges of the San Diego Gaslamp district an oddly symmetrical white bed and breakfast popped up on a dead square of grass just for San Diego Comic-Con. Depending on how you travel to this house, you might have become filled with misgivings.
For one, almost a block away there’s a car caught in the act of plunging into the fountain to a soundtrack of angelic operatic voices–new concept art or a fragment of the memory in a small town called “Castle Rock.”
You might also notice a mysterious figure–a young boy in a dark grey hoodie perhaps in the fountain’s pool of still water near a sign for Castle Rock that declares: “From Stephen King and J.J. Abrams, Castle Rock ‘A Nice Place to Live and Grow.'” Going up the path behind this fountain, there are bunches of flowers tied to trees with sorrowful notes and a small red New Testament Psalms and Proverbs. Farther up the path there are signs posted by the Police Department of the City of Derry: Six-year-old George Elmer Denbrough, born Sept. 18, 1951, and last seen in a yellow raincoat, is missing.
“Castle Rock” is set in the eponymous New England town, that metaphorically exists between Ichabod Crane’s late night encounter in Sleepy Hollow, the Massachusetts of “The House of Seven Gables” and the realm of Stephen King. Castle Rock was in the 1979 King novel, “The Dead Zone” and is part of a trinity of fictional Maine towns figuring in King’s works–the other two being Derry and Jerusalem’s Lot.
If you only attend the Castle Rock activation and not the panel, then you’ll still know there are some weirdness in that town. First, what looks like a dog kennel attachment on the side of the B and B is actually the Shawshank Correctional facility. Castle Rock is a town plagued by odd occurrences but that, according to the couple who host the B and B, is just what makes the town so interesting. Dressed in matching beige puffy vests, maroon and white small design checkered long sleeved button-down shirts and maroon pants, the couple stare past you when they speak to you like a beauty queen without the congeniality factor or a Stepford wife.
Once in, the lobby/entry way, you’ll notice someone reads a lot of Stephen King and likes impressionistic paintings of contorted faces and the room numbers are not sequential. I went through 30265 and unlike the other guests, I had already seen the first four episodes so I understood some references but others I did not. There is always something creepy about mannequins, especially for Doctor Who fans. Did something just move? In the end, with postcard and keychain swag in hand, I was filled with a sense that something was not quite right.
At the panel for “Castle Rock” and the press round tables that preceded it, the creators/executive producers Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason explained that all the main characters on “Castle Rock” are original, but have ties to the world King has created. Besides Shaw and Thomason, Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise the Dancing Clown in “It”), Melanie Lynskey (“I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore”) and Jane Levy (“The Evil Dead”) were at the press round tables and were later joined on the panel by Sissy Spacek.
Spacek, 68, was in her late twenties when she played the 16-year-old lead character in movie adaptation of King’s first novel, “Carrie.” This time as she ventures into this King-esque world she’s Ruth Deaver, a woman battling dementia. She is the adoptive mother of a death-row lawyer, Henry Deaver (André Holland).
Even after previewing four episodes (“Severance,” “Habeas Corpus,” “Local Color” and “The Box”), it isn’t clear just what is wrong with Castle Rock. As a boy Henry went missing for 11 days and was found alive. Henry’s adoptive father died and Henry is suspected his death. The warden of the Shawshank Correctional Facility gruesomely commits suicide in a way that gives meaning to the episode title. After his death, a mysterious young man is found locked away in a closed wing of the facility.
The SDCC audience got to preview the first episode that has one particular scene also played out in the Castle Rock activation.
Skarsgård explained during the press round tables, “The character I play doesn’t even has a name. He’s called: the kid. He’s found in a cage in an old oil tank in a closed off section of Shawshank Penitentiary. Nobody knows how he got there. That’s part of the mystery of the show: finding out who he is and what’s his connection to Henry Deaver–What’s his connection to the whole story. The mystery will become resolved at the end and it’s a strange one. It’s probably not what you expect.” But there will be connections to past King stories. “King fans will be able to make the connections and parallels.” To prepare for his role, Skarsgård found it important to explore and research the effects of solitary confinement, learning that one often loses the ability to read social cues. Skarsgård also lost weight for that gaunt, hungry, haunted look.
Conversely Lynskey didn’t feel it necessary to look into Molly Strand’s chosen profession: real estate. “I was buying a house while I was doing the show, but because she doesn’t do such a great job as a real estate agent, I didn’t feel a huge responsibility to find out a lot about how it works.” Of Strand, Lynskey said, “She’s taken on this responsibility to revitalize her hometown, Castle Rock. Like I feel that she went to Portland, Oregon for the weekend and thought, ‘This is what my town can be like.'”
While Lynskey’s character Molly wants a new vision of Castle Rock, Levy’s character, Jackie Torrance, the town’s only taxi driver, loves Castle Rock for its strangeness. “She is also the self-proclaimed oral historian of Castle Rock,” Levy explained, adding that as a fan of the horror genre, Jackie has grown up listening to all the legends, but she’s “bummed that she’s never seen them first hand” so “when Henry Deaver shows up in episode one she’s really f**king stoked,” thinking, “Now is my time.”
Levy left one tantalizing spoiler for King fans, “Jackie brushes up very closely with a very famous King character.”
At the panel, Spacek described Ruth, saying, “She’s an independent fabulous woman” who is struggling against a terrible disease.
Thomason added that Spacek, “really taught us who Ruth was. She allowed us to understand who this character” and added that “Sissy was actually incredibly instrument in picking the production design in her own home.”
Thomason said of “Castle Rock,” the and Shaw wanted to “start you in one place and take you to a very strange and unexpected place by the end.” Thomason added, “We spent a lot of time in the writers room in an analytical mood to figure out what precisely makes a Stephen King story a Stephen King story.”
Shaw said, “He’s a writer who returns to the scene of a crime. Literally in the case of Castle Rock. He’s been raining down disasters on this town for forty years or whatever it’s been. You have to wonder who the f**k still lives in this town?” This was “an interesting question for us.”
A King story, “really combines horror with humor,” Spacek interjected.
Thomason said, “He invented character horror” which is like a new genre.
The first four episodes of “Castle Rock” are a slow burn, reconstructing Henry’s past with flashbacks and references made in a current time period. There is no happy ending, but if you’d like to join the journey, “Castle Rock” premieres on 25 July 2018 on Hulu.
—Originally published in RogerEbert.com