Netflix doesn’t exactly lack for coming-of-age comic book adaptations about kids in some kind of supernatural peril. Some hunt monsters (October Faction), others wield magical keys (Locke & Key), yet others develop superpowers (I Am Not Okay With This), and the entire Crain family battles something so evil they all grow up to become traumatized adults (The Haunting of Hill House). Call it the post-Stranger Things brigade.
While these shows are usually my jam, I reached my personal limit after The End of the F’n World’s second season and needed a break. As a result, I fell way behind. With COVID-19 forcing the entire world to hit the pause button, however, I finally binged the 10-episode first season of Locke & Key, the Joe Hill – aka Stephen King’s son – adaptation that dropped in February. I occasionally shouted at the screen since the teen protagonists on the show make some oh so very teenager mistakes, but I ultimately had a great time with this wonderful story of grief and family masquerading as a C.S. Lewis/Stephen King fantasy mashup.
The Locke family – Nina (Darby Stanchfield) and her three children, Tyler (Connor Jessup), Kinsey (Emilia Jones), and Bode (It’s Jackson Robert Scott) – need a fresh new start after the gruesome murder of their father/husband, Rendell (Bill Heck). So, at the invitation of Rendell’s younger brother Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) the Lockes relocate to Massachusetts to take over as custodians of the family’s ancestral home, which is remote, spacious, and – of course – super, super magical.
What to Expect (Mild Spoilers)
According to Joe Hill, their goal was “to make the most Netflix-y Netflix show that ever Netflixed. You want people to stay tuned when that little box appears in the lower right corner and says, ‘Next episode starting in five seconds.’”
Mission accomplished. 10 episodes, 10 cliffhangers, each one compelling you to keep streaming until finally, you run out of show to watch. By the end of the first episode, for example, Bode has already discovered magical keys – each one unlocking a unique power, such as disappearing into a visual representation of your own mind. But he’s also been tricked into freeing an evil and enigmatic woman (Laysla De Oliveira) from a nearby well, an act with grave consequences. What relationship she has to the Locke family – and why she so desperately wants their keys – is a mystery that stretches out across the entire season. Whenever and wherever she shows up, chaos soon follows.
The older Locke children take a little longer to adjust to their new normal. As periodic flashbacks deftly establish, these kids went through a truly horrifying ordeal, trapped in their home as a madman hunted their father. The trauma still haunts them. So, to Tyler and Kinsey the keys initially seem like mere tools to help them get over the next hump, life hacks to help them ace a test, make a friend, meet a boyfriend/girlfriend, and just maybe learn to finally move on from their father’s death and their related guilt over not doing more to save him.
While that grief is understandable and often quite moving, Tyler and Kinsey initially behave like such standard TV show teenagers that you might grow frustrated with their constant mistakes. Bode – who is sidelined the further the season progresses – is the only one who consistently senses how much danger they’re in. Nina, meanwhile, is off having her own adult problems, completely oblivious to the magic happening in her own home.
Circumstances eventually force Tyler and Kinsey to truly confront the new responsibility they have, putting into motion a mystery that will lead them into strange and dangerous new places and reveal far more about their dead father than they ever knew.
First published as a graphic novel by Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez in 2008, Locke & Key was picked up and batted around by several Hollywood studios before landing at Fox, where it was turned into a TV series. The pilot – starring Miranda Otto, Sarah Bolger, Ksenia Solo, Jesse McCartney, and Nick Stahl – was shot in 2011 but ultimately not picked up to series. Efforts to sell it to a competing network failed.
Then Alex Kurtzman was going to adapt it as a film trilogy at Universal. Also, fail.
Then Hulu hired Lost/Bates Motel’s Carlton Cuse to produce and Doctor Strange’s Scott Derickson to direct a pilot for a TV series.
Then Hulu replaced Derrickson with It’s Andy Muschietti. A pilot was filmed.
Then Hulu passed on the project entirely.
Then Cuse took it to Netflix, recast every role other than Jackson Robert Scott as Bode, and recruited The Haunting of Hill House’s Meredith Averill to co-run the show with him. Their new focus: shy away from the horror parts of the story in favor of pushing harder into the fantasy and family elements. The Hulu pilot, for example, opened with the Rendell’s harrowing murder sequence. The new version pushed that into a flashback doled out in chunks, allowing the audience to meet and know the characters before fully seeing the tragedy that uprooted their lives.
Now we have a show on Netflix. Only took a decade.
Asked about this difficult gestation period, Hill – who executive produces the series and wrote the pilot episode – told DailyBeast:
I think the problem was, the graphic novel puts the graphic in graphic novel. It’s a pretty explicit work of horror fiction that happens to feature teenagers and children in peril. In that way, it’s not so different from something like my dad’s book It. But when you’re talking about a TV show, and you have youthful protagonists, the question is, can we really do horror, and how much horror are we talking about, and what’s the nature of this horror, and who’s watching our show?
But, optimistically, he added: “At least coming from prose fiction and publishing, the idea that a story needs multiple drafts before you finally hit on its best possible version doesn’t seem that strange to me.”
Book vs. Show
Hill and Rodriguez’s Locke & Key series was published continuously from 2008 to 2013, but it’s not actually done. A couple of new one-offs were published last year, and Hill and Rodriguez are currently plotting an entirely new series of books called “World War Key,” tentatively due next year.
The Netflix series loosely adapts the first three books – “Welcome to Lovecraft” (2008), “Head Games” (2009), and “Crown of Shadows” (2009-2010) . There’s more than enough material left to continue on for several seasons. That’s certainly the plan, anyway, and Netflix is so far complying, renewing the series for a second season.
If you know the books, though, the series will continually surprise you. Hill has taken to calling this Locke & Key a “remix” instead of a straight adaptation, and as Carlton Cuse told SFX Magazine, “The story unfolds in a general way that is similar to what is in the books, but there are definitely things that are different. I think it will be an enjoyable experience for fans of it, as well, to see the way we’ve expanded the world and made changes and introduced new characters.”
Will Remind You Of
A cross between Stranger Things, The Haunting of Hill House, Harry Potter, and It. Will not, oddly, remind you of the other Joe Hill TV show of the moment, AMC’s NOS4A2, which is a different beast with a tone all its own.
What Some Critics Said
“Establishing a fantastical world that’s at once familiar and distinctive, as well as rich enough to support a potential multi-season franchise, Locke & Key seems primed to be a breakout hit for the streaming service.” – Daily Beast’s Nick Schager
“A fun ride for some, and a tedious show with too many teens for others. What else can you expect?” – Cinelipsis’ Federico Furzan
One Last Thing
Kinsey eventually makes friends with a group of horror movie-loving outcasts who call themselves the Savini Squad, after legendary special effects guru/director/actor Tom Savini. The man himself even pops up in an early episode, appearing as a local shop owner.
Sure, any ole show can drop a Tom Savini Easter Egg, but Locke & Key is just about the only one which can make a reference like that because Tom Savini used to babysit one of the producers.
Again, Joe Hill:
I was a child actor on the set of Creepshow—I played the little kid with the voodoo doll. It was an independent film that was shot in Pittsburgh in 1981, and child labor laws were different. So they didn’t have a babysitter and made Tom Savini my babysitter.
He had a makeup effects trailer, and I hung out with him the whole week. He had three or four worktables, and I had a spot where I would sit under one of his worktables. I would check out what he was doing. And what he was usually doing was disfiguring a movie star or crafting one of his monsters. He was like my first rock star. He was just so cool! And he didn’t really seem to know how to talk to a kid as a kid, so he just talked to me like one of the grown-ups. He had a big book of autopsy photos, and I remember looking over it during lunch several times. I was too young to really be grossed out or scared; at a certain age, everything is just information. I thought it was fascinating.
From babysitting the kid to appearing in his TV show – not a bad gig.