Locke & Key arrives on Netflix following two previous failed attempts to adapt the 2008-2013 comic book by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez to television. Fox commissioned a pilot in 2011 starring Miranda Otto, Sarah Bolger, and Jesse McCartney, but ultimately passed on picking it up to series. The property then moved to Hulu in 2017 with a new pilot starring Frances O'Connor and Samantha Mathis. That one didn't get any farther. Finally, Netflix stepped in and rescued the project with yet another recast. This one took, and has resulted in a ten-episode first season, which drops on the streamer today.
Prolific producer/showrunner Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan) can take a lot of the credit for bringing Locke & Key to fruition. Andy Muschietti, who helmed the 2017 pilot, also remains attached as an executive producer. The only on-screen holdover from Hulu's version is young Jackson Robert Scott, who was no doubt cast by Muschietti after appearing as evil clown Pennywise's first victim in the It movies.
The story is a dark fantasy about a mother and three kids who uproot their lives after a terrible tragedy and move across the country to their family's ancestral home in Massachusetts. In this iteration, mom Nina Locke is played by Darby Stanchfield (Scandal). Connor Jessup (American Crime) and Emilia Jones (Utopia) are teenagers Tyler and Kinsey, while Scott is the precocious youngest child, Bode.
Abandoned for years but preserved in remarkably fine condition, their house is a centuries-old mansion filled with countless dark corners and spooky mysteries. Chief among these are a series of antique keys hidden throughout the residence that, when inserted into the appropriate locks, bestow the users with magical powers including teleportation, ghostly corporeal disembodiment, and the ability to control another person's actions. Creepy whispering voices draw the children to find these keys, while adults like Nina are somehow mentally blocked from either comprehending them or remembering them after a few moments.
At first, the keys and the superpowers they bring seem like great fun to the kids. However, the more they learn about the house's history, the more its troubled past comes forward to haunt them – worst of all in the form of an evil spirit (Laysla De Oliveira) who emerges from the property's wellhouse on a quest to collect all the keys for herself and isn't above a little murder and mayhem to accomplish that goal. Eventually, secrets are uncovered regarding her origin and ties to the Locke family, and the trio of kids have to enlist the help of other ill-prepared friends to fight her off.
Following AMC's limited series of NOS4A2 and the Netflix movie In the Tall Grass (also starring De Oliveira), Locke & Key is the third of Joe Hill's works to be adapted for television in the past year. It's also easily the best of the three, although that's not saying much given that the first two weren't particularly great. In its favor, the fantasy story has a handful of clever and imaginative ideas, the setting is atmospheric, and the two teenage leads are appealing enough to hold our attention. The Well Lady is also a really fun villain. On the other hand, mom Nina recedes into the background fairly quickly (Stanchfield is basically a non-presence in the role) and young Bode is frankly a bit grating.
Despite its focus on the younger characters, the show isn't a YA story, exactly. It turns very dark in places and is tinged with horror elements. As was evident in the other two recent adaptations, author Hill follows pretty closely in his father's footsteps, playing with some of the same themes, ideas, and stylistic elements. Locke & Key incorporates a lot of familiar Stephen King tropes, sometimes to its detriment. For example, a group of kids in a New England town band together to fight a supernatural terror; a beatific, mentally challenged character (an unfortunate stereotype) proves critical to the plot; and Hill clearly shares his dad's fondness for Lovecraftian monsters from other dimensions.
Yet the show holds back from being a full-on frightfest. Its emphasis is more on the fantasy aspect (which, to be fair, King has written quite a bit of as well). After struggling to find its footing in its first few episodes, the story gets much more interesting by the end, coming together with a satisfying climax that, of course, sets the stage for a potential second season.
Whether that will come to pass naturally depends on how well this first season does for Netflix. Although imperfect at times, the show has enough good qualities to merit some attention.
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Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.