After a seemingly endless parade of false starts, fans of the beloved horror comic series Locke & Key finally have their long-awaited adaptation, thanks to Netflix, the Quixotic efforts of the original author Joe Hill, and Andy and Barbara Muschietti. While the series originally seemed as cursed as the Locke family line themselves, the first season of Netflix’s Locke & Key rewards fans with an adaptation that, though imperfect, is certainly worth the wait. While remaining largely faithful to the source material, Locke & Key nails what made the original comics stand out, while being, for the most part, engaging and accessible to new viewers. It’s a difficult balance to pull off, but I’m happy to report that Locke & Key mostly delivers.
After an intriguing (and fiery) cold open, Locke & Key begins as the comics do, with the Locke family relocating from Seattle to Massachusetts after a sudden tragedy several months prior. Other than the curious and resilient young Bode Locke (Jackson Robert Scott), it’s clear the rest of the family is swallowing down profound grief and trauma that has driven a wedge between them. Matriarch Nina Locke (Darby Stanchfield) is doing her best to hold it together and offer her children a fresh start in her late husband’s childhood home. But her mask of optimism is fraying at the edges. Teenage children Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) have become closed off and distant.
“The Locke & Key comic earned its iconic status for the way it reimagined gothic and cosmic horror tropes to tackle themes of grief, trauma, legacy, and generational curses. The series shines when it leans into those same themes.”
The family settles in the small seaside town of Matheson, Massachusetts. (The setting has been renamed from the comic’s Lovecraft, MA.) Settling into the ancestral Key House, the oldest children start at a new school, Nina begins renovations with intent to sell, and young Bode starts to explore. As he ventures enthusiastically into every room of the massive, gothic house, he hears mysterious whispers that lead him to hidden keys with incredible powers. As he introduces the magical possibilities of the keys to his older siblings, the dangerous legacy of their father’s life, and violent death, comes to light.
The Locke & Key comic earned its iconic status for the way it reimagined gothic and cosmic horror tropes to tackle themes of grief, trauma, legacy, and generational curses. The series shines when it leans into those same themes. But the first few episodes are less successful when they explore the supernatural. While the older Locke children and their mother believably embody different, complex responses to trauma, Bode retains his youthful joy and curiosity. While later episodes add depth to his response to his father’s death, it’s a slightly jarring contrast.
The heavy surroundings of the story add too much weight to let the wonder shine through. And while the pilot is clearly striving for the childlike magic of discovery seen in classics from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to The Goonies, it doesn’t quite land. Instead, when Bode’s story has the energy of an early Harry Potterbook and the rest of the family’s plots feel like Mike Flannagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, one might wonder what tone the show is going for. Fans of the comics might be more comfortable with the first episode’s shortcomings. But I can imagine it being a barrier of entry to new fans who have no idea what this all is leading to.
Thankfully, in episode two, the magic, mystery, and heavier themes begin to come together. By episode three, the series really hits its stride, achieving a cohesive and powerful exploration of psychological and generational scars. The realization of the various powers of the keys is impressive, with enchanting special effects that evoke wonder, dread, and fantastic psychological dives. An early sequence, in which the villainous Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira) has fun with the Anywhere Key, is exuberantly shot and edited. The key grants the user the ability to open a door to anywhere in the world they wish to go, which Dodge uses to casually party, steal, and murder around the world.
“…despite its potent spooky atmosphere and references, Locke & Key is surprisingly tame in the horror department.”
The world of the Mirror Key is unnerving, though not as visually original. But nothing tops the Head Key for visual execution and plot potential. It lets its user journey inside their own head, represented as a physical space, where they can view memories, encounter physical manifestations of their emotions, implant knowledge, and bring visitors. The Head Key lets the show’s production design and effects team stretch their creative legs, and it represents the most successful integration of Locke & Key’s lore and themes.
Horror fans can enjoy the show’s many homages to the genre. Bode explores the endless halls of Key House on his Heelys in a sequence shot like young Danny Torrance’s tricycle rides in The Shining. Kinsey meets a group of film nerds who call themselves The Savini Squad, screening classic horror and filming their own low budget splatterfests. And of course, the time and reality-bending keys are pure Lovecraftian horror.
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But despite its potent spooky atmosphere and references, Locke & Key is surprisingly tame in the horror department. The series’s most disturbing moments emerge in its depiction of the violent murder of patriarch Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) and the flashbacks the surviving Locke family experience of the event. And while the supernatural elements get increasingly dark, they never feel very scary.
Luckily, the young cast steps up to keep the viewer engaged throughout. British actress Emilia Jones is excellent as Kinsey, transforming from wounded and shut down, to terrified and determined, to confident and decisive, at various points throughout the series. Connor Jessup is convincingly guilt-ridden as Tyler. And while occasionally unbelievably positive given the circumstances, Jackson Robert Scott (Georgie in the IT films) proves to be a capable child actor.
The adult characters are somewhat hit or miss. Darby Stanchfield (Scandal) does her best with a somewhat thankless part. The story shoves her into the perfunctory role of the unbelieving adult. But Stanchfield admirably embodies a woman constantly teetering on the edge of falling apart. And as the mysterious Dodge, Laysla De Oliveira is magnetic.
“Locke & Key is a solid (if not-yet-great) adaptation of the comic [and] has the potential to become a great show in future seasons.”
But when the show ventures too much into the high school drama realm, it falls flat. The remaining kid characters aren’t allowed much expansion beyond their archetypes. By the time we begin to get to know them beyond their shells of nerds, bullies and mean girls, supernatural threats come and snatch them away.
All in all, Locke & Key is a solid (if not-yet-great) adaptation of the comic. It takes a while to find its footing, and once it does, it still suffers a few tonal and character missteps. But when it reaches its highest points, it’s excellent. With it’s faithfulness to the rich source material, Locke & Key has the potential to become a great show in future seasons. Until then, fans of the comics can only hope the imperfect but solid first episodes attract enough casual viewers to earn the multiple seasons it deserves.
Have you checked out Locke & Key on Netflix yet? If you’re a fan of the comic, do you think it did it justice? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!
Review: LOCKE & KEY (2020)
Locke & Key is a faithful and solid adaptation of the beloved comic series. While it takes a while to find it's footing, the show shines when it merges its supernatural lore with its deep explorations of grief, trauma, and legacy. The first season approaches great by the end, but its tonal missteps might put off new fans. However, the show is sure to please fans of the comic and is promising enough to warrant multiple seasons exploring its rich lore.