Netflix’s new Locke & Key begins with a clear message: Escape is not an option. Based on the comic book series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family, who recently lost their patriarch in an act of gun violence. The trauma of that event sends a mother and her three children from their Seattle home to Keyhouse, their ancestral home in Maine. The Locke children—Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), Tyler (Connor Jessup), and Kinsey (Emilia Jones)—carry a unique heritage that comes with a distinct inheritance: Magical keys forged centuries ago that allow adolescents and those who believe to perform wonders. The head key creates a physical manifestation of the inside of someone’s head: their thoughts, feelings, and memories laid bare.
The keys, all beautifully rendered, capture the haunted house vibe from the source material more than the original design of Keyhouse, but the layout of this grand old home is still significant. The doors that seemingly lead nowhere and kitchen the size of a football stadium amplify the creepiness factor, while the long green halls and oil paintings of great-grandfathers are fearsome in their own way. A walled-off den ups the weird factor of the house, which was vacated in the ’90s by surviving family members. But while the setting has been redesigned somewhat, lovers of the original comic book series should be pleased with this adaptation from Carlton Cuse, Aron Eli Coleite, and Meredith Averill. Though it does not follow the exact pacing of events, this interpretation remains very faithful to the overall text, and stretching certain memories and wrapping others up quickly allow for bits of suspense for longtime fans.
Most fantasy genre productions live or die by their visual effects—witness the animated dead eyes of America’s beloved Tom Hanks in Polar Express. But the visual effects used to create flight, ghosts, and a rad M.C. Escher-style mall in Locke & Key cast dizzying magic. The way the show visualizes some of the more abstract ideas from the comic book is equally as striking. Rather than shrink characters down in size, Locke & Key uses a combination of clever staging, doors that appear from nowhere, and oversized props to make the inside of someone’s mind just as expansive as the house the Locke family inhabits. There are also joyful little touches, like memories rendered as jars of candy displaying videos, which make the show accessible even to younger viewers.
This is one horror fantasy inclusive of all ages, grappling with the dark, developmental struggles of addiction as well as the isolation that comes from a group of people protecting a child. In particular, Bode, who’s about 6 in the books but looks about 8 in the show, carries lot of emotional baggage. Jackson Robert Scott has quickly made a career in horror as the wise but innocent little brother—having played Georgie Denbrough in Andy Muschietti’s It and a young Troy Otto in Fear The Walking Dead—and he deftly teeters between annoying younger brother and a child growing into their identity.
Casting director April Webster has put together the perfect ensemble to portray the Locke family. As the terrified and angsty Kinsey, Emilia Jones embodies the passive-aggressive middle sibling, as her alternative-girl pink hair strip arrives a few episodes in to set off the transition from sulky teen to in-your-face punk. Connor Jessup’s Tyler charms and avoids as he struggles to quietly scale a mountain of regret.
Looking after your children after they’ve witnessed the murder of their father would be a monumental task for any parent, let alone one who’s seven years sober; every outsize emotion, low grade, and change in behavior threatens to send Nina Locke back to her demons. Darby Stanchfield gives a haunting performance as the Locke matriarch, showing fragility in the tender way she washes a mug and how she frays when dismissed as incapable by her daughter. The entire family suffers from PTSD, and their symptoms create the landscape upon which the story is built. The keys literally unlock the path to recovery or further destruction: At one point, the elder children disagree on the ending of one of their father’s original bedtime stories, so they use the head key and watch a playback of their tuck-ins. Eventually, they learn that he told them each a different ending.
Mystery and misdirection drive this story, where good guys and bad guys change quickly as motives are revealed. Fans should be particularly pleased with Laysla de Oliveira’s performance as antagonist Dodge. Sexy, calculating, intimidating, and hungry, Dodge is the stuff of nightmares. She’s clever and could be anywhere at any time; this proves to be a deadly combination, particularly for the ignorant. De Oliveira’s cutting portrayal brings both comedy and horror to a series that overall could use a few more laughs to balance the woes facing the main cast.
The cinematography steers a lot of the mystery; everyday objects are captured with a halo effect, like the glowing lights that surround Christmas merchandise in an ad. As Nina strolls the aisles of a hardware store, a hammer appears in the foreground of the frame, hanging from a shelf. That hazy spotlight sends the viewer back in time to the worst day of Nina’s life, when she was forced to use a similar instrument to protect her family. The pendulum swings between light and dark, mimicking the highs and lows of growth, recovery, and development facing each member of the family. The show never allows itself to be bogged down in dreariness; instead, discovery becomes the ultimate high. The kids become explorers of their domicile, of their neighborhood, and of their familial history. In doing so, they untangle the lies and pain of the past and forge new paths for themselves.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Netflix’s Locke & Key: A solid cast that includes the teens who lend authentic life to this fantasy mystery, and a gorgeous score and fun soundtrack make for a fun and whimsical soundscape. The writing explores recovery in an accessible way, and a diverse cast helps create an inviting new world. This combination of fantasy and horror provides opportunities not just for scares and imagination, but for astute reflections of society: that self-imposed burdens can leave everyone bowed. Locke & Key weaves a silver lining into an otherwise foreboding tapestry.