'Locke & Key' Review: A Worthy Adaptation With A Few Compromises And Plenty Of Surprises

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez' Locke & Key is one of the most beloved comic book series of recent years, gathering awards and acclaim throughout its five-year run. It has also faced an arduous uphill battle to reach our screens, with a cancelled movie trilogy and two cancelled pilots. The bizarre imagery and challenging visuals from Rodríguez's art, as well as a dark and occasionally outright disturbing story, made it difficult to adapt to the screen.

That long wait for a proper adaptation makes the very existence of the new Netflix adaptation of Locke & Key a special gift to fans. While the season feels toned down from the source material at times, it captures the essence of what made the comic book great, even managing to improve it in some ways. 

From the moment the first episode starts, it's clear this ain't your daddy's Locke & Key. Where the Fox pilot was a near shot-for-shot recreation of the first volume of the comic, the Netflix version is something new. The show strips the story down to its basics, and is built back up by people who clearly love the comics and understand why people love them, even if it periodically seems to forget why the comics worked in the first place.

Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family (watch the trailer here). After their father is murdered, they move to their ancestral home of Keyhouse, where the three Locke siblings discover magical keys that are somehow connected to their father's death – including a mysterious woman set on taking the keys from the Lockes.

One thing to notice early on is how perfect the cast is here. From characters created just for the show, to the main characters fans of the comic have known for years, every actor perfectly captures the essence of the character and the magic of their relationships. That's especially true of the Locke family as they each try to keep their lives as normal as possible, all the while knowing full well that they aren't the same people they were before their father died. Even the youngest of the bunch, Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) isn't entirely trauma-free, as he goes from being haunted by the memories of his father to being literally haunted by an evil woman living in the house's wellhouse that wants to kill them. Likewise, his older sister Kinsey (Emilia Jones) is trying to get rid of her fears, while the eldest sibling Tyler (Connor Jessup) is left to confront his own grief and anger over what happened to his father, as well as having to be a father figure to his siblings. The Lockes may have magic on their side, but their father's death and his past sins cast a large shadow over them.

Indeed, Locke & Key at times feels like a slightly more family-friendly version of Netflix's previous horror hit, The Haunting of Hill House. But the exploration of trauma and never really being able to escape from it also gets a dose of fantasy that makes the show feel more like a mature Harry Potter.

Without devoting this entire review into the differences between the show and the comic (which will instead be posted at a later date), Netflix's Locke & Key seems afraid of making this a TV-MA rated show that takes advantage of the darker elements of the source materials. Instead, the show tiptoes around to make a bloodless, safe-for-general-audiences family drama with some fantasy sprinkled on rather than an R-rated epic. While some may be glad that the sexual and physical violence is omitted from the show, it seems that even the nightmarish imagery that made the visuals of the comic a feast for the eyes is also gone.

The toned down story extends to even the mythology of the show. Even if you're not very familiar with the source material, you still get a hint that there is a lot more going on than we're being told or shown. The titular keys that give the story a unique twist are barely seen or used, perhaps for budgetary constraints or because they're saving them for future seasons. Instead, the focus of the show is on the mystery of the death of Rendell Locke (Bill Heck) and how it connects to the demon lady chasing them. Though it may simply be an issue of unfinished VFX (some episodes sent to critics were unfinished), the show has less-than-stellar effects work, which may become worrisome if more keys are introduced.

That being said, there is a lot to like here. As far as adaptations go, this is as good a compromise as fans of the source material could hope for. Locke & Key doubles down on the character drama with the fantasy elements still sprinkled throughout, and newcomers will find an intriguing story that leaves enough unanswered questions for future seasons. The show takes a "remix" approach to adapting the comic book, not unlike last year's Watchmen, adding, cutting and even shuffling events around in order to keep old fans and unfamiliar viewers on their toes. Nina Locke (Darby Stanchfield) and Ellie Whedon (Sherri Saum) especially become more important characters in the show, taking more proactive roles that place them at the center of the big mystery of the season, and both actresses infuse the character with a lot of nuance and emotional depth. No matter how familiar you are with the story of Locke & Key, there's bound to be at least a few big surprises in store.

The one downside of this "remix" approach is how it changes certain payoffs for those unfamiliar with the source material. The season roughly adapts the first three volumes of the comic, but also introduces concepts and events from much later in the story. Doing this means that twists or plot points that are meant huge emotional payoffs are now robbed of their emotional buildup, since we haven't spent much time with these characters. These changes may unsettle some fans that have read and reread the comic meticulously (or listened to the audible audio drama over and over), and they might also confuse viewers who haven't read the comics, but the core of the story remains as good as ever. The end of the season teases a fascinating change that's worth getting excited about.

Locke & Key is immensely rewarding for fans who have waited years for an adaptation of the comic, and it remains an intriguing and twisting tale of trauma and magic that will captivate a whole new audience. Let's just hope that the door to this world stays open for years to come.Locke & Key premieres on Netflix on February 7, 2020./Film Rating: 8 out of 10