Locke & Key (2020)
Locke & Key, the acclaimed horror comics series from writer Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns, and presumably a few Father’s Day cards for Stephen King) and artist Gabriel Rodríguez, really took the long away around to our screens.
Two pilots were filmed and passed on before the current iteration made the grade. Fox commissioned one in 2011 from writers Josh Friedman, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, which was directed by Mark Romanek, One Hour Photo (2002), that starred, among others Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Miranda Otto, but declined to take the project to series. Hulu repeated the trick 2017, with It (2017) director Andy Muschietti calling the shots and Frances O’Connor replacing Otto (Aussie Aussie Aussie, etc. etc. etc.). That version, too, was discarded. Various film adaptations were mooted over the years as well but came to nothing. Now it’s finally here, having found a home on Netflix which, as a teen-centric supernatural drama tangled in its own idiosyncratic mythology, is perhaps where it belonged all along.
After a disturbed student Sam Lesser (Thomas Mitchell Barnet) brutally murders their counselor teacher father, Rendell (Bill Heck) — and nearly does the lot of them as well — the bereaved Locke family decamp from their home in Seattle and movie to their deceased patriarch’s family mansion in the fictional town of Matheson, Massachusetts: the Keyhouse, a huge, rambling, Addams Family-ish manor that would not look out of place next door to Hill House. Heck, they probably get each other’s mail by mistake.
While teenagers Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) run the gauntlet that is the local high school social hierarchy and mother Nina (Darby Stanchfield) tries to restart her life with the help of Rendell’s brother, Duncan (Aaron Ashmore), youngest child Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) explores the many rooms and corridors of the Keyhouse and soon discovers one of the artifacts it appears to be named after — a key that will open a door to anywhere the wielder can visualize in their mind. It’s just one key of many, each with their own magical powers, and soon the Locke kids are a) collecting keys like Pokémon and having a time of it finding out what they do, and b) contending with the evil force known as Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira) that Bode accidentally freed from imprisonment in the wellhouse, who also wants to possess the house’s supernatural power.
That’s a pretty neat set up packed with a lot of narrative possibility, and you can see why the Locke & Key comic was such a hot property for adaptation pretty much since it first launched. However, while what we could have gotten from the series — and what we did get in the comic, a dark but imaginative tale of the sins of the fathers battening on the current generation — is not what we get in Netflix’s adaptation, which is, as noted above, a teen drama with fantasy elements, and not a horror story centered on child protagonists.
The difference is fine, but key (heh): the series, under the control of producers Carlton Cuse, Lost (2004-10) and Meredith Averill, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), takes the focus off the Locke family dynamic and the mysteries therein (what’s the Locke House? What’s the deal with the keys? What does this all have to do with dear dead dad? Who is the — never mind) and introduces a raft of new characters or foregrounds pre-existing supporting roles at Matheson Academy, the school the Locke kids attend, instead. Some of it is fun — Kinsey falling in with a group of horror film nerds (Griffin Gluck, Jesse Camacho, and Asha Bromfield) who call themselves the ‘Savini Squad’ (after the godfather of gore Tom Savini) is cute, and Petrice Jones as Scot, their leader, makes for a good love interest. Other elements are rote teen angst snoozery and feel like the series is spinning its wheels to make it to the now seemingly mandatory 10-episode season length. Still, we should never complain about an appearance from genre legend Steven Williams — The X-Files (1994-2002), Friday the 13th: Jason Goes to Hell (1993) — who shows up as school principal Joe.
Locke & Key fares much better when it’s dealing with the meat of the matter, which is the keys and how they relate to the family and its past. There are some interesting visual flourishes deployed when the ‘magic’ happens — Bode’s initial use of the Head Key stands out for its sheer cinematic inventiveness — and a palpable sense that we, with the Locke kids, are entering a place of mystery where the standard rules don’t apply (the town where the series is set was named Lovecraft in the comics, although Matheson has its own implications). It’s a little light on fright, though; whereas Hill and Rodríguez’s series perfectly balanced wonder and horror, and wasn’t afraid to get bloody when putting the emphasis on the latter, the Netflix redux feels decidedly, almost forcefully PG-13 in nature — all the better to capture some of that Stranger Things viewership, perhaps? There are times when things take a turn for the dark and anxiety-inducing, but it’s pretty much at the level of light pop horror — the stakes never seem particularly high, and the key characters never in any real peril.
There have, of course, been other plot changes wrought on the source material, but they’re difficult to comment on due to their spoilery nature, and besides, they more or less evolve out of different narrative requirements based on the new medium. Fans of the books will know them when they see them and will hopefully give them the appropriate amount of leeway.
Locke & Key is a bit of a disappointment, but perhaps that’s only because the source material is an absolute stone-cold modern classic — how could it help but fall short of expectations? Well, frankly, I can think of a few ways without going into too much trouble, and God willing they’ll be addressed when the second season rolls around, which the tail end of season one leaves us well set up for. That nigh-inevitable second season is worth scribbling onto your mental To-Do list, though — a little tinkering and a more hard-nosed approach to the genre material could elevate the whole exercise.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson