The Locke and Key comics aren’t exactly old enough yet to be considered "classics," but they’re certainly among the best to come out in the last decade or so. Fans have been awaiting the series’ live-action adaptation since the very beginning, and various versions have started up and then sputtered out over the years. Now, thanks to Netflix, we finally get to watch the action, horror, friendships, romances, and mysteries that make the Locke and Key comics impossible to put down play out on the screen–although enough has been changed in this adaptation that some fans won’t be happy.
Locke and Key follows the Locke siblings Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode (Connor Jessup, Emilia Jones, and Jackson Robert Scott, respectively) after their father Rendell (Bill Heck) is murdered by one of Tyler’s classmates. With their mother Nina (Darby Stanchfield), the Lockes move across the country to Matheson, Massachusetts (named after horror author Richard Matheson, a change from the comics, where the town was called "Lovecraft"). In Matheson, they take up residence in Keyhouse, the ancestral mansion where previous generations of Lockes, including their father, resided for centuries. They soon discover that Keyhouse is full of magical, reality-bending keys that give the siblings fantastical powers–and the responsibility to protect those keys from threats who would abuse those powers.
In the comics, it wasn’t quite as "magical" a journey as that synopsis might suggest. Rendell’s murder haunts the Lockes, particularly Tyler, who takes his father’s death extra hard, and Bode, who’s young enough to have trouble making sense of concepts like death and grief. The show chooses a lighter path–Tyler adjusts more easily to life in their new town, Kinsey makes friends quickly, Bode is older and better-equipped to cope, and Nina’s personal problems are way more under control than in the books. The adaptation spends more time at school with Tyler and Kinsey, where there are more characters, which leads to a greater focus on high school shenanigans than fans might be expecting–although that’s not inherently a bad thing, just different.
These and many other changes from the source material may indeed succeed in making Locke and Key more accessible for a wider audience, but they also take the edge off the series’ formerly Lovecraftian horror. The comics are dark, but while the show pays lip service with a conspicuously copious number of references to horror filmmaking pioneer Tom Savini, it rarely throws wide the doors into actual horror. Instead of getting half his face blown off in disturbing detail and haunting his childrens’ nightmares, Rendell gets cleanly shot in the abdomen and simply collapses. Fights with furious fear-demons result in cat-like scratches instead of gruesome, torn flesh. And when a certain door gets opened, there are no eyeball-shaped horrors to inspire wanton slaughter on the other side–just sparkly lights and some teenagers’ silly drama. New fans might enjoy the show’s playful tone, but those expecting the comics’ darker side will be disappointed.
And that was a deliberate choice for the show. Speaking to GameSpot, executive producer Carlton Cuse said he and Locke and Key’s other adapters tried to strike a ratio of "three cups fantasy to one cup horror."
"It’s sort of an intuitive process," Cuse continued. "[Showrunner] Meredith [Averill], we worked on Haunting of Hill House, and I had done Bates Motel before this, and I think that for both of us, we loved the kind of inviting, warm, heartfelt undertones to Joe [Hill]’s comic. And we wanted to have that be reflected in the story, in our adaptation of it. And I think that we felt like horror was an element, but we were much more interested in structuring the show on the fantasy axis."
It definitely shows. When one character uses the Ghost Key, which causes the user’s body to drop dead while their spirit flies loose around Keyhouse’s grounds, there’s no terror or danger to the discovery; instead, he flies to the ancestral Locke cemetery and encounters the friendly ghost of his grandfather. They have a nice chat, underscored by heartwarming, adventurous music. It feels like a scene from a Disney movie, not a horror series. Meanwhile, the Head Key doesn’t cause its user’s skull to open like a tin can–instead, it spawns a door that leads inside their mind. The body horror from the series’ pages is pretty much totally absent here.
That said, not all the changes are unwelcome. The Netflix version uses some of the keys more effectively for the TV format. For example, the aforementioned Head Key lets users view memories inside their own minds like browsing videos on Netflix itself (or at Blockbuster, for a less contemporary metaphor)–a smart change that gives the show an effective tool for diving into backstory and exposition that the comics didn’t have. There are some new additions to Keyhouse’s magic as well, like a key that creates fire and another that remixes a couple of keys from the books and combines them into something more versatile, with some really fun ripple effects on the larger plot.
Unfortunately, the show falls short again when it comes to the characters. Beyond just the Lockes themselves, many of the other characters have been significantly watered down compared with the source material. For example, Scot Kavanaugh (Cavendish in the show, for some reason) has been transformed from a brash, British invasion-style punk covered head-to-toe in tattoos, to a shy, ineffectual, heartbreakingly boring drama club stereotype (played to the best of his ability by Petrice Jones). He and a handful of new characters invented for the show make up the "Savini Squad," a clique of misfits who are supposedly obsessed with horror films but appear to know very little about them (the honest-to-goodness dialogue "Final girls don’t hide!" will make any actual slasher fans want to open up their heads and throw the memory of it off a windy cliff). That’s the kind of sloppy writing and characterization that plagues the show.
Of course, those shortcomings aren’t the fault of Locke and Key’s mostly adequate cast. Stanchfield, Jessup, and Jones do a decent job as the core family members at the center of it, although poor Jackson Robert Scott–who horror fans may recognize as Georgie from the recent It movies–has been woefully miscast as a version of Bode who’s more precocious (and thus, annoying) than the mischievous, rambunctious kid from the books. Similarly, the murderous Sam Lesser (Thomas Mitchell Barnet), who was a disfigured force of nature in the comics, is way too sympathetic and not nearly threatening enough; he even gets characterized as the class clown at one point, which just feels wrong.
Luckily, more than one scene is stolen and subsequently saved over the series’ first 10 episodes by Laysla De Oliveira’s performance as Dodge (or "Well Lady," as the Lockes often refer to her). Dodge plagues the Lockes throughout this season, popping up again and again to threaten and cajole them into giving her the keys she wants, providing a credible threat and a villainous throughline that keeps the show exciting. De Oliveira is forced to deal with just as much confused writing as the rest of the cast, like when she murders random people for no reason or stumbles on important discoveries by total coincidence, but the actress manages to hit the right balance of threatening and playful anyway, especially in scenes with Bode, with whom she has a fun but dangerous dynamic.
Dodge also demonstrates what the show does best for existing fans of the series: It effectively explores a new version of this beloved story. If you think you already know everything that’s going to happen on Locke and Key because you’ve read the comics 30 times, you’re guaranteed to be pleasantly surprised by some of the directions the show goes–even as you’re inevitably disappointed by the blunted horror and watered-down characters.
And if the Netflix version is your first introduction to Locke and Key and you don’t mind some cheesy writing, congratulations–you’ll probably enjoy the show just fine, without all the baggage of the high expectations that fans have been lugging around for the decade-plus since Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s masterful horror comics series debuted.
Luckily, this fan’s opinion doesn’t really matter, since work on Locke and Key Season 2 has already begun.