Be careful what you unlock.
Be careful what you unlock.
Photo: Netflix
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The fact that Netflix’s adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s Locke & Key exists years after multiple failed attempts at bringing a series based on the comic books to different TV networks is a testament to the fact that the story of the Locke family has always been a fascinating one. It’s immediately apparent how much of the source material’s been reimagined for live action, because as much as Locke & Key honors the comics, it often feels as if the series’ creators approached the show with the intention of making it accessible to a much broader audience.

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In terms of basic plot points, Locke & Key more or less cleaves to the IDW comics as it introduces us to widow Nina Locke (Darby Stanchfield) and her three children—Tyler (Connor Jessup), Kinsey (Emilia Jones), and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott)—who move to Matheson, Massachusetts following the grisly murder of the kids’ father Rendell (Bill Heck). In Nina’s mind, moving the kids away from the West Coast back to their father’s hometown, where their family still owns an ominous Victorian house that’s in need of repairs, will give them all the space they need to begin growing past the trauma of Rendell’s death. But the kids all see the move as Nina merely attempting to run away from what happened, something they’re hesitant to broach with her for fear that the conversation might cause her to relapse into her alcoholism.

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The tense, complicated familial dynamics that develop in the wake of a sudden death of a loved one are the core of Locke & Key’s drama. And that only becomes more intense as they all arrive in Matheson and are forced to confront the reality that they’re local celebrities in a sense. Though none of the Lockes led particularly notable lives before moving back to the small town, the Locke family’s legacy is an integral part of its history and lore, much of which revolves around their home that’s known as Keyhouse.

Where Hill and Rodríguez’s comic was suffused with a constant sense of looming dread and darkness, Netflix’s Locke & Key skews a bit more toward the gently spookier side of things in terms of its tone. That’s not to say that this interpretation of Locke & Key is meant for younger audiences, exactly—the show very quickly veers into moments of brutal, bloody violence—but there’s an overall lightness in the show that makes it feel less foreboding.

Early into the season, Locke & Key sidesteps the horror tradition of having all of its core characters gradually catch on to the supernatural danger they’re in. Instead, the Locke children all end up on more or less the same page soon after Bode wanders off and, like a gullible child who’s grieving the death of a parent, ends up having a conversation with the disembodied voice of an “Echo” (In the Tall Grass’ Laysla De Oliveira) who is trapped in a well on their land and says that she wants to be his friend. As it happens, hearing voices around Keyhouse isn’t all that uncommon, as the residence is littered with hidden, magical keys that call out to the Locke children as if they’re asking to be found. After Bode makes a grave mistake involving his Echo, the Locke children begin to realize that the strange keys they all keep finding have magical properties that allow them to do truly amazing things. But the fun they have with the keys is undercut by the equally mystical dangers they attract and the fact that the kids are each dealing with their own very grounded emotional struggles.

What’s equally impressive and peculiar about Locke & Key is how the season manages to essentially hit the whole of the comics’ major narrative beats within the span of just 10 episodes. On a technical level, the show works; it clearly establishes its rules, introduces its major players, gives them all motivations that bring them together as the series’ action comes to a head, and leaves everyone profoundly changed by the time the credits roll. If you were to go into Locke & Key having never read the comics, you could easily come away from the series with the impression that Netflix finally managed to produce a comic book adaptation that was able to hum along at an even pace, rather than suffering from the middle slump so so many of its other series in the genre have.

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Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode using the Head Key.
Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode using the Head Key.
Image: Netflix

But when you factor the comics into how this story’s been reworked, you see just how different a beast Netflix’s Locke & Key is from the Hill/Rodríguez series. You can see that simply in terms of how the creators took the time to keep you feeling deeply uncomfortable and outright petrified page after page. Much of the comics’ elements of body horror and Lovecraftian lore have been almost entirely erased in favor of an atmosphere that instead feels more than slightly left of reality. Where the Lockes almost saw the keys as a means of granting themselves superpowers in the books, here they’re more of a testament to the magical energies radiating from the mysterious black door that can only be unlocked with the Omega key that the Echo being is desperately searching for. This ends up making Locke & Key occasionally feel like a softer spin on The Haunting of Hill House with more of an emphasis on younger protagonists.

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All of this is to say that one shouldn’t watch Locke & Key expecting to see a shot for shot remake of the comics, though the series is absolutely littered with gorgeous scenes that were plucked right from the imagery of the books, and almost all of the cast members bring something to their performances that makes these characters feel like fresh takes on their comics counterparts.

Aside from many of the show’s dreamy, technicolor set pieces (like the space inside Kinsey’s head), one of the main reasons Locke & Key can sometimes trick you into believing that it might be a show for younger audiences is because of how Jackson Robert Scott really steps up to the plate with his portrayal of Bode. Because younger people in general have an easier time recognizing the Keyhouse’s magic, Bode’s the first to catch onto the strangeness of his new house, and Scott expertly manifests the dueling senses wonder and horror Bode understandably experiences as he learns that the keys aren’t all fun and games.

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Netflix’s Locke & Key is a distillation of the comics’ core essence that’s been reimagined into what, on the whole, feels like a well-polished pitch for future seasons that would potentially delve into more granular details that diehard fans might have been expecting to see upfront. This Locke & Key’s Tyler and Kinsey are meant to be teens living in 2020, which the show telegraphs by thrusting the kids into social situations that feel as if they could have been plucked from relatively tamer episodes of Riverdale or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Connor Jessup’s Tyler doesn’t grapple with suicide ideation the way the character does in the comics, and Emilia Jones’ Kinsey has a somewhat more difficult time becoming a social creature at her new school than she originally did, but those character changes aren’t so drastic that these Lockes feel entirely unfamiliar.

More significant, though, is the way Netflix’s series shies away from some of the darker emotional themes involving addiction, abuse, racism, and homophobia that were present in the comic. Hill and Rodríguez imagined the town (named Lovecraft in their original version) as a place whose tense, charged atmosphere was a reflection of the nefarious, otherworldly energies radiating from the Keyhouse—similar to the way that the evil in It’s Derry, Maine was an outgrowth of the Pennywise’s presence there. By the season’s end, you definitely get the sense that there’s plenty more to this world that would be fascinating to see in the future, and Netflix is likely going to be keeping an eye to see how fans and newcomers alike respond to this first chapter of the Locke family’s story.

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Locke & Key begins streaming tomorrow, February 7.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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