“Locke & Key” Unlocks the Eerie Charm of Its Comic Book Origins

Locke & Key Photo: Christos Kalohoridis

Netflix’s adaptation of the Joe Hill comic series takes a while to get going, but hits a dark-fantasy stride by the end.

For better and worse (but mostly better), Locke & Key imports the tone and feel of its comic book inspiration almost entirely to its TV adaptation.  Show creator Carlton Cuse has proven increasingly adept at helming smart, faithful adaptations for television from books (The Strain) and comics.

For those unfamiliar with the source material by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke & Key concerns the titular Locke family, who, after a personal tragedy back in Seattle, move east to a small Massachusetts town. There waits a large manor home, Key House, one that deceased patriarch Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) hated so much he left in the rearview and never spoke of to his family. His brother Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) has been left caretaker, but largely avoids the property even though he remembers very little of his childhood. The Lockes, though, are in need of a change, and Key House seems to be the easiest place to start. Unfortunately, they quickly find that the home offers much less refuge (and much more danger) than they ever expected.

Part of Locke & Key’s charm is how closely it hews to the comics on which it’s based. It diverges here and there, but never in ways that existing fans will resent. In fact, they may appreciate how it gives the narrative a few surprises while maintaining what made the series so popular in the first place. It’s the rare adaptation that manages the feat of feeling like its source material while not simply being a retread.

Locke & Key
Photo: Christos Kalohoridis

But such a close adaptation carries over some of the source materials’ flaws, most notably its strange pacing. Like the comics, the beginning of the show involves plenty of table setting and world-building. While never boring, it contrasts highly with the increasingly breakneck pace that sets in around episode 6 of the 10-episode order. To whit, early episodes may involve the discovery or use of a single key, and sometimes not even the same time. By the end, however, there are episodes where five keys change hands multiple times. Again, it isn’t bad per se, but it feels somewhat imbalanced. The characterization is largely cast aside for action, with the exception of family matriarch Nina (Darby Stanchfield), who stands out as the one character who deepens and grows significantly in the show’s back half.

The rest of the cast still remains consistently entertaining, though. The Locke children, Tyler (Connor Jessup), Kinsey (Emilia Jones), and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), feel like siblings who survived a tragedy, with all the pain and camaraderie that implies (think This is Us, but with magic keys to other dimensions). Jessup’s a little older than Tyler’s supposed to feel (being nearly 25 during filming), which feels noticeable in the early goings. But the kids’ chemistry quickly overwhelms that observation. Stanchfield seems superfluous in the early goings but gets to dig into the role as her characterization moves to the forefront.

The supporting players are similarly good, particularly Principal Ridgeway (invested with humanity by The X-Files’ Steven Williams) and Scot (Petrice Jones), a possible love interest for Kinsey and the head of the schools film nerd crew, lovingly self-labeled The Savinis. 

Despite boasting five directors and three cinematographers, Locke & Key feels consistently visually striking. Part of this can no doubt be credited to production designer Rory Cheyne, set decorator Jaro Dick, and art designer William Cheng, who fill Key House with a lush, Burtonesque character filled with grimly Gothic props and furnishings. The show has a lush color pallet full of deep jewel tones, which the show’s visual team utilizes to create an atmosphere of foreboding. While never feeling explicitly threatening, the palate creates a sensation of claustrophobia anytime the characters stalk around inside Key House, giving viewers a sense of tension even when little is happening on-screen.

The exterior shots run in the opposite direction. Everything feels wide and open as if the Locke family lives on the edge of the Earth. In particular, one of the last shots of the series shows the town from overhead. Despite all the buildings downtown, it looks as though the town is empty, abandoned. Again, this heightens the sensation that the Lockes running away to Massachusetts has placed them in far more danger than they ever were in Seattle.

There’s one aspect of the visuals that is disappointing enough to be noted. Joe Hill has more than proven himself as a writer separate from his father Stephen King. While both are concerned with similar themes — recovery, tragic childhoods, the power of memory — Hill unquestionably has his own perspective and approach. Unfortunately, in the first two episodes, the show cannot resist including visual nods to King adaptations — including, most grievously, a trip through the house by Bode using his heelies, shot from the same exact angle as the Big Wheel scenes in Kubrick’s The Shining. Given Hill is his own man (and, not for nothing, that his dad hates that adaptation) it’s a bit of a sour note for those playing inside baseball. I’m sure Hill himself doesn’t mind, but there’s no reason to do the visual nods save the family connection and they never fail to pull the viewer out of the world.

Despite this and the aforementioned pacing issues, Locke & Key succeeds as both a strong adaptation of the comic series and a thrilling dark-fantasy family adventure in its own right.

Locke & Key opens up the door to your darkest, deepest horrors on Netflix February 7th.

Locke & Key Trailer:

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