We've been getting a lot of Stephen King movies lately, and here's yet another one with ties to the famous horror novelist. Locke & Key is based on the comic book series of the same name, and it's written by Joe Hill, who's actually King's son. The premise is simple enough – after their father is violently murdered, the three Locke siblings move back with their mother to their ancestral home, Key House, supposedly in an attempt to understand more about his past.
Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) are understandably reluctant to move away from all their friends and family, especially at such a time of bereavement. But the sleepy town of Matheson doesn't let them languish for long. Soon enough, the siblings hear magical keys calling out to them from around the house, each with its own unique and dangerous powers. They've got a powerful adversary to contend with as well, in the form of a mysterious demon that has awakened at the bottom of a well and will stop at nothing to get the keys.
With Meredith Averill (The Haunting of Hill House) and Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) behind it, it's no surprise that Locke & Key is a delightful mash-up of horror and magic. Those of you who are averse to scares needn't worry though. While the show definitely has elements of horror, it's intention is never to terrify you. Instead, it's a heartwarming coming-of-age tale about love, friendship, and family, albeit one that is thoroughly infused with magic and wonder.
Locke & Key has actually taken quite a tortuous road to find itself on Netflix today. First published in 2008, the comic was picked up for development by Dimension Films that same year. The series even had Steven Spielberg on board at one point, with singer Jesse McCartney set to play Tyler Locke. However, the pilot was eventually passed up by Fox in favour of J.J. Abrams' Alcatraz, and another pilot was similarly rejected by Hulu, perhaps because it shared too similar a target audience with Castle Rock, which was based on select works by Stephen King. Somewhere along the line, there was even talk of developing the comic as a film trilogy for Universal, but that didn't happen either.
As it turns out, a third pilot was eventually filmed for Netflix, who ended up picking it up. The new series retains a few members of the Hulu cast, but with a few interesting changes in roles. Jackson Robert Scott still plays the youngest child, Bode Locke, but Thomas Mitchell Barnet was recast as Locke nemesis Sam Lesser. Barnet played Bode's friend Rufus in the Hulu pilot, but I'm really glad he's playing Sam now, because his performance is one of the best parts of the show. He alternates between being a vulnerable, snivelling boy with an abusive father and an unhinged maniac with ease, conveying a manic glee that is extremely believable. Barnet inhabits Sam's desperation effortlessly, a lit fuse about to go off or simply dissolve into a puddle of tears.
At its core, Locke & Key gives off vague Chronicles of Narnia vibes for me. While their settings could not be more different, they're both about children setting off on an adventure. It evokes a lot of other stories that similarly feature kids as heroes of the story, often to the exclusion of adults. In Locke & Key, there's even a plot mechanic to make that happen, since grown-ups literally can't remember anything about the magic they see. The children have to fend for themselves alone, and the show makes use of the innocence and naivete of childhood and adolescence to amplify its sense of magic.
The series also feels like a massive puzzle at times, but I don't mean that in a bad way. While the comic features many more keys than we eventually get to see in the first season, I'm always looking forward to finding out what a new key does. The keys grant their user fantastic abilities – one key lights anything it touches on fire, including people, while another lets them walk through any door in the world, as long as they've seen it before. Another brings a physical embodiment of a person's mind into the real world, which is super cool but also one key I would never ever use. Other keys are weapons, and one of them unlocks a crown that lets the wearer control shadows.
The pieces click into place as the season progresses, as the Locke children slowly uncover how the magic of the keys and Key House works. They've also got a few mysteries to puzzle out along the way, such as why their Uncle Duncan can't remember huge pieces of his childhood. Meanwhile, they're constantly threatened by the Well Lady, or Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), the demon who wants to use the Omega key to open a portal ominously known as the Black Door. Dodge takes the form of a beautiful, raven-haired woman, and she's a sly and cunning adversary who is a master at manipulation. Her machinations are the primary source of tension for the show, especially when you know that the ones facing her are just impressionable young kids.
The show was frustrating at times though, especially in the face of sheer idiocy on the part of some characters. Without giving away too much, let me just ask why it would be a good idea to give one half of a certain weapon to someone as they go to collect the other half, in the very place where they know Dodge is very likely to be? There's a lot of questionable decision-making to go around here, but it fortunately doesn't interfere too much in your enjoyment of the show.
I also have to single out the soundtrack for special mention. It's almost laughably literal, but at least the tunes are catchy and really appropriate. For instance, when a certain someone puts on the shadow crown, Billie Eilish's you should see me in a crown comes on. Seriously? Not that I'm complaining though – it's a great song.
Locke & Key really picks up in the later half of the season, as flashbacks shed important light on key events earlier on in the show. These revelations are part of the show's very deliberate efforts to fill in the blanks, if you will, and it's immensely satisfying. But nothing could quite prepare me for the show's end, which features one of the best cliff hangers I've seen in a while. Even if I thought some of the writing was a little sloppy, the season's conclusion is nothing short of brilliant. If there was ever any doubt that I'm going to be back for season 2, the ending just about ensures that I will.
A fun, magical ride set in a creaky old house. Watch if you like fantasy, demons, and a sprinkling of high school drama.