Review: ‘Locke and Key’ (2020) is a Tame Adaptation and Missed Opportunity

Rating: 3 out of 3.

“Too safe to be anything other than a competent coming-of-age fantasy”

Locke and Key is the latest show from the Netflix conveyor belt of glossy teen fantasies. Adapted from Joe Hill’s popular graphic novel series, the show aims to mix family drama with horror fantasy but struggles to carve out its own identity. The story follows a grieving family who move to their ancestral home and discover magical keys needed to fight the evil lurking beneath the house whilst maintaining their grip on life in the wake of a tragic loss.

The show is not without bright spots, particularly when focused on its young stars and premium-grade production design, but for a show that’s all about magical keys unlocking secret doors, it’s a shame Locke and Key hits all the familiar notes we’ve come to expect from teen fantasy dramas. You’ll see a lot of Netflix property littered throughout, with nods to The Haunting of Hill House, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Stranger Things (one scene involving a lightning storm is incredibly on the nose). It’s clear that mashing all of these together is the aim here, in the hope of targeting fans who are missing their favourite shows. Unfortunately, the result is a whole lot of everything and nothing distinctive at all. There was an opportunity to be bold, but everything is played safe.

Locke and Key’s best moments hit early in the first half of the season, as we’re introduced to the Locke family and their stunning ancestral mansion in New England, Matheson. The children at the heart of the story are Tyler (Connor Jessup), eldest brother and sensitive jock; Kinsey (Emilia Jones), the sister, traumatised and a little lost; and the youngest of the trio, Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), a scrambling bundle of youth.

The casting is excellent: all three bring the Locke children to life, entertaining with their nose for magical mischief but also showing a mature ability to ground all the weird stuff with relatable sibling chemistry. Nina (Darby Stanchfield) is the mother struggling to hold it all together following the murder of her husband (Bill Heck). The key is that they feel like a family. The adults are largely underwritten, but the kids all play their parts well and keep you engaged even when the plot doesn’t.

As each family member explores their new home, it isn’t long before little Bode hears whispering in the walls and a sinister voice down an abandoned well. The whispering turns out to be the magical keys nestled in the corners of Key House, each responding to a specific lock and turning to a variety of visually impressive effects. The keys are heavily tied to the plot, but their presence feels contrived from the very start, with Bode hearing them as and when the plot needs him to.

The first key lets the user travel anywhere in the world, which brings interest from the mysterious entity trapped down the well of Key House. I say mysterious, because across ten episodes you learn nothing about the show’s main antagonist, Well Lady, or Dodge, (Laysla De Oliveira), which is a waste considering Oliveira’s captivating and loose-cannon performance. She’ll smile and seduce in one scene and throw a child under a train in the next. However enjoyable she is, Dodge has the same narrative issues as the keys, jumping in and out of the story whenever the action needs ratcheting up. It’s fine on a short-term engagement level, but from a writing perspective feels especially weak.

Among the biggest issues the show faces in capturing the spirit of the source material is balancing its wildly juxtaposing tones. In the graphic novels, the glossy pages relish the gorier aspects of Joe Hill’s writing, but Netflix has sacrificed this in the hope of broadening their audience. The result means a lot of the darker elements of the story land with a whimper. In its desire to appeal to the largest possible audience pool, this Netflix adaptation is a family-friendly horror, with violence that never feels threatening; its murderous sub-story revolving around Sam Lesser (Thomas Mitchell Barnet) feels tonally out of place in a show that’s primarily a high-school drama with magical objects. On a basic level, it’s a faithful adaptation, but Netflix seems to want to both eat its cake and not make a mess.

Despite narrative problems, Locke and Key is beautifully produced, like all Netflix originals. The real draw of the show is the house itself, which has been lovingly recreated for the screen, complete with creaky corridors and hidden rooms, all of them overflowing with colourful oddities. It’s a place you want to spend time with, like Hogwarts or Narnia, and the show works best when it focuses the action on the house and its connection to the Locke family.

This is shown when Kinsey and Tyler use one of the keys to enter her mind, visually differing from person to person; Kinsey’s is a highly organised shopping mall that’s filled with colour-coded memories. Inside, they find a physical manifestation of her fears, which Kinsey decides to remove because she thinks it’s holding her back. This leads to some complications down the road and the show does well to remind us that emotions such as fear and anxiety can’t simply be overcome by ignoring them.

Fantasy is always at its best when it emphasises real-world problems, and this stuff is good, even if the simplified visuals can’t hold a candle to the original artwork. It’s even more disappointing, then, that Locke and Key doesn’t do more with the potential of its own mythology. There’s a throwaway line about how their Uncle Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) used the gender key to change into a girl as a child, but this idea is dropped and never mentioned again. In the graphic novels, Duncan is gay and has a bigger role, but again, the writers have dropped this in favour of more teen drama – and clearly teens are the target audience. For a show that’s all about unlocking things and opening magical doors, there was a real opportunity here to explore themes such as gender, mental illness and identity in a creative and impactful way, but the interest simply isn’t there.

As a whole, Locke and Key is too safe to be anything other than a competent coming-of-age fantasy series and not much else. It wants you to feel excited by the going through all these strange doors and yet it doesn’t take you anywhere interesting.

Directors: Michael Morris, Vincenzo Natali, Tim Southam, Mark Tonderai, Dawn Wilkinson

Producers: Carlton Cuse, Meredith Averill

Cast: Darby Stanchfield, Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones, Jackson Robert Scott, Laysla De Oliveira

Release Date: 2020

Available on: Netflix

Featured image courtesy of Netflix