As it usually goes, the television adaptation of the horror-fantasy comic Locke and Key has not had a smooth path from page to screen. There was a pilot episode in 2011 from Fox, word of a three-movie deal in 2014 through Universal Pictures, another potential show via IDW Entertainment in 2016 and Hulu in 2017, before finally fetching up at Netflix in 2018.
Throughout this, fans of the comic, written by Joe Hill and beautifully illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, have kept a close eye on its development. As a multi-award-winning series with fantastic writing and art, Locke and Key gathered a substantial following over its 5-year run. However, if you haven’t read, or even heard of, the comic, you’re in luck. The Locke and Key television adaptation, debuting on Netflix on February 7, is a gateway into this fascinating universe.
After the sudden murder of Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) in Seattle, his wife Nina (Darby Stanchfield) uproots her life and the lives of their three children, Tyler (Connor Jessup), Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), to return to the Locke ancestral home in rural Matheson, Massachusetts. Rendell deliberately never spoke on his childhood much, and in Nina’s attempt to be close to her deceased husband, she brings her family to a rambling, rundown 19th-century mansion, opening the door to secrets of the past.
Keyhouse is filled with magical keys, hidden away in various places. Bode, at ten being the youngest and most curious, starts finding the keys first, while teenagers Kinsey and Tyler brush him off as having an overactive imagination in the beginning, the keys start to call to them as well. As adults, Nina and Rendell’s brother Duncan are impervious to the magic, to which Bode notes, “This is how stuff always works.”
Speaking of…let’s look at what works, and doesn’t work, about the new Netflix adaptation.
The casting is spot-on, bringing the characters from page to screen with unexpected ease. While some of the characters might be irritating – in particular, Nina is rather weak and insipid compared to her edgy version in the books – the kids at least do well in their roles. Considering that most of the show is about them, it’s good that they can carry the show.
There’s also no barrier to entry for Locke and Key. If you haven’t read the comics, I daresay you’ll enjoy it more, and the script synopsis at the beginning of the review is all you really need to know. All the backstory, the family history and the keys themselves are evenly spaced out over the season, and no episode is ever bogged down with too much exposition.
The show deals with some heavy themes – growing up, dealing with loss, alcoholism, and crippling anxiety to name a few – but it does so in a light and sometimes even whimsical way. There’s a lot of heart here, honestly a bit too much heart if you were looking forward to the brutality of the comics coming to life on-screen. For a horror-fantasy, there’s very little horror, or anything that really sets your skin crawling for that matter.
If you’re a major fan of the comics, your viewing of Locke and Key can possibly go two ways. You might enjoy this whimsical take of the comics. You could appreciate seeing almost all the keys from across all six volumes being present in the show, even if time constraints mean they aren’t fully explored. You might also like the blending of the story arcs, where keys and consequences are plucked from the page and added into different parts of the timeline.
Or, you could feel very precious over the comics and subsequently not have a good time with the show. There’s an undercurrent of potential running through each episode, just enough for you to see what could have been if Locke and Key wasn’t hamstrung by a 13 age restriction. The source material is far darker, more brutal, and not only more violent but more malicious as well. It’s emotionally intense and distressing, which can’t (or won’t) be shown for TV.
The TV adaptation’s bluntness can be best seen in the treatment of the series villain. Dodge of the comics is a cunning manipulator, a black-hearted Loki almost always three steps ahead of the Lockes. The character is an odious mix of abusiveness and convincing honesty. In the TV show, Laysla De Oliveira’s Dodge is watered down, frequently playing the seduction card and being limited to screen-safe, non-triggering acts of smirking villainy.
The show’s special effects budget was also heavily invested in achieving the fanciful tone, sometimes at the expense of other key moments and locations. You can tell there was a trade-off: sometimes the special effects are a bit cheap when they could have, or should have, been more convincing. At least they spared no expense with the effective and dazzling final episode showdown.
Locke and Key is definitely a dark adolescent fantasy show rather than a psychological horror, tonally closer to The House With a Clock in its Walls than Stranger Things/Haunting of Hill House. Fans of that genre should be happily satisfied, while fans of a more mature horror may be left feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. As brutal as a hatchet to the back of the head, Locke and Key was a comic that pulled no punches, whereas that’s all the TV series has done.
Last Updated: February 3, 2020