Locke & Key took almost as many twists and turns on its way to television as the plot of the series itself. Between 2008 and 2013, writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez published a sextet of limited comic book series (and one collection of one-shots) about the Lockes, a family still reeling from the murder of its patriarch, Rendell Locke, at the hands of a student as the story opens. That murder sends the Lockes -- athletic teen Tyler, his slightly younger sister Kinsey, their kid brother Bode, and their mother Nina -- back to the evocatively named New England town of Lovecraft, where they take up residence in Rendell's childhood home, a sprawling manor filled with dark corners, darker secrets, and a bunch of keys invested with magical powers. Oh, and a demonic creature with bad intentions that lives in a well house, because what home is complete without that?
Combining family drama with supernatural scares (and no small amount of gore), the comics series became a creepy and heartfelt cult hit with an irresistible premise, a rich mythology, and a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. No wonder Locke & Key seemed ripe for adaptation, and didn't want for attempts. In 2011, Fox shot a pilot with an intriguing cast that included Miranda Otto, Nick Stahl, and Jesse McCartney, but decided not to take it to series. The announcement of a film trilogy followed a few years later, but later evaporated. Then came a second pilot for Hulu, one that would have starred Frances O'Connor and Samantha Mathis, among others. That collapsed too, but from its wreckage comes this Netflix series created by some of the Hulu project's key personnel, including Hill and Carlton Cuse (Lost).
Perhaps that troubled history explains why this incarnation of the series seems determined to play it as safe as possible -- as safe as a show that features multiple scenes of characters using keys to unlock the contents of their heads can be, anyway. It plays as if designed to fit in snugly next to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and You on a service that's learned to cater to younger viewers with a taste for the macabre.
Rather than Lovecraft, the series is set in Matheson (a nod to writer Richard Matheson, another Joe Hill inspiration and no stranger to the medium thanks to his work on The Twilight Zone). The Lockes' reputation precedes them. Though Rendell's murder took place miles away, the story has long since reached the locals, who've come to regard the Locke house as a place of mystery that should probably be avoided.
Nonetheless, the Lockes move in and the pilot, directed by TV veteran Michael Morris, has a lot of fun exploring its labyrinthine interior, and suggesting that its location -- on a cliff, overlooking a cave -- might soon play a role in the story. More immediately, the family has to settle in and Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) soon find high school life more welcoming than they might have guessed it would be. After some initial awkwardness, Kinsey falls in with a gang of "Savinis," horror movie enthusiasts who've adopted the name of the great make-up artist Tom Savini for their filmmaking endeavors, and Tyler strikes up a flirtation with a fellow student that quickly gains momentum. (Because who can resist a sensitive jock, even if he lives in a haunted house?)
Delivering appealingly understated performances, Jessup and Jones make fine anchors for the show, which invests quite a bit of time in matters of high school life and teen romance. That helps during the long stretches when Locke & Key plays more like an adaptation of a young adult novel, but doesn't when the series shifts its focus to dead-end subplots like Nina's (Darby Stanchfield) struggles with alcoholism or really any scenes involving Bode (Jackson Robert Scott; he's the sole holdover from the Hulu incarnation but his performance feels better suited for a Disney Channel sitcom than a dark Netflix series). As the villainous Dodge, however, Laysla De Oliveira proves to be a standout, delivering a coolly seductive, surprisingly low-key performance, as if the character just knows she has to bide her time before she accomplishes her evil aims.
But as familiar as the teen drama can be at times, the creative team of Hill, Cuse, Aron Eli Cloeite (Heroes), and Meredith Averill (The Good Wife) bring a lot of imagination to the supernatural elements and the powerful keys at the house's heart -- sometimes by way of special effects, sometimes by way of equally effective lo-fi solutions. One episode makes a key that starts an inferno with the slightest touch seem terrifying, but it's in moments using devices like the Anywhere and Head Key that the series really comes to life. With the former, a user can walk through any door they've seen, in real life or in a photograph, a power realized by simply having a door open into locations it, by any logic, never should. (Want ice cream? Turn the key and, voila, hello ice cream parlor.) With the latter, the series realizes the psyches of each character into unique locations, be it a shopping mall filled with obsessions and memories or an unwanted trip to a site of horror.
Locke & Key's strongest moments are so good they suggest the material might have worked better away from the sprawl of a streaming series, but the middle section hits the familiar problem of narrative sprawl, often playing like one endless episode rather than individual installments. More troubling, the final stretch only fitfully picks up the momentum (despite the presence of Canadian horror mainstay Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube and Splice). Rather than redeeming the shortcomings, it brings the story to a close with a shrug -- albeit one that sets up a potentially better second season. And if that doesn't work, maybe they could just start the adaptation process all over again.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Locke & Key is now available on Netflix.