Fans of Locke & Key — the horror-fantasy comic series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez — spent the entirety of the 2010s waiting for an on-screen adaptation that never materialized. Fox tried first, back in 2011, but ultimately passed on the pilot. Universal’s proposed film trilogy, announced in 2014, didn’t happen, and last year Hulu pulled the plug on their version of the series, even though the writers had reportedly already banged out seven scripts.
It’s all the more impressive, then, that the Locke & Key hitting Netflix on February 7 bears not even a whiff of “development hell” stink. The 10-episode supernatural drama — developed by Carlton Cuse (Lost), Aron Eli Coleite (Heroes), and Meredith Averill (Star-Crossed) — is an entertaining and heartfelt family adventure about growing up, coping with loss, and finding a demon at the bottom of a well on your haunted estate. Imagine Goosebumps for grown-ups, or Stranger Things on antidepressants.
After her husband Rendell (Bill Heck) is murdered, Nina Locke (Scandal’s Darby Stanchfield) relocates her three children to her late spouse’s “ancestral home” in Massachusetts — a creepy Victorian monstrosity known as Key House. While teenagers Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) are standard-issue sullen about the move, 10-year-old Bode (It’s Jackson Robert Scott) is content to ramble unsupervised around the Locke family’s sprawling new property. It’s almost comical how often Bode is left alone to wander into potentially dangerous situations — all in the service of story, of course. In the gloomy and sinister looking “wellhouse,” the boy meets Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), a comely spirit who urges Bode to bring her the magical keys hidden throughout his new home.
Of course Dodge is actually an evil demon, and soon Bode, Tyler, and Kinsey find themselves engaged in a battle for possession of the enchanted keys. While Locke & Key openly embraces many familiar elements of its genre — beginning with a haunted house straight out of central casting — it supplements the more formulaic elements with genuinely imaginative storytelling. Many of the keys Bode discovers will be recognizable to fans of the comics — from the Anywhere Key that enables users to travel, well, anywhere, to the Head Key, that lets you enter and explore your mind (or someone else’s). Cuse and company have a tremendous amount of fun with the latter key in episode 3, as the Locke kids get inside their own heads (Bode’s is a kinetic and colorful arcade, while Kinsey’s is a hyper-organized shopping mall).
The keys can have sinister uses, too — this is a horror story, after all. But much like his father, Stephen King, Hill has a knack for crafting scary tales with heart. Locke & Key uses the genre to explore temporal issues ranging from addiction and abuse to peer pressure and high-school love triangles. In the world of this show, most adults are unable to experience magic (“This is how stuff always works,” notes Bode), so much of Locke & Key’s success rides on the appeal of the young cast. Jessup and Jones deftly tread the line between teenage bravado and vulnerability, while 11-year-old Scott blends the cherubic sheen of a child actor with the nuanced comic timing and natural charisma of an actor who happens to be a child. Coby Bird, a 17-year-old performer with autism, is a charming stand-out as Rufus, the autistic groundskeeper at Key House and Bode’s ally in the war against Dodge.
It can be intimidating to delve into a show based on beloved intellectual property if you’re not familiar with the source material, but Locke & Key presented no barriers to entry for this newcomer. In the interest of due diligence, I grilled longtime Locke & Key comics fan Christian Holub (who watched all 10 episodes as well); he characterizes the series as a faithful adaptation with a few notable updates. (The “Gender Key” and “Skin Key” that allowed characters to change their sex or race in the comics, for example, have been combined into the “Identity Key,” which lets the user shape-shift into any person her or she likes.)
None of the episodes suffer from Netflix bloat; the writers deliver a steady supply of answers (about the keys, Rendell’s troubled past, Dodge’s ultimate goal) while making effective use of binge-friendly cliffhangers. Sure, some of the twists and misdirects along the way tilt toward predictable (even if you haven’t read the comics), but the finale offers a satisfying action-climax while setting the table for a season two. For a show that deals so intently with loss — of loved ones, of innocence — Locke & Key is a surprisingly rewarding endeavor. Grade: B+
Locke & Key premieres February 7 on Netflix.