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Locke and Key review – step inside Netflix's house of horrors | Television & radio


Much is made of Netflix being a slave to the algorithm, cancelling beloved shows judged to have underperformed by the streaming behemoth’s mysterious metrics and rushing to commission new content that echoes proven hits. At first glance, their latest global launch, Locke and Key, seems like some sort of optimised Netflix megamix: set in a creepy mansion full of arcane mysteries (like The Haunting of Hill House), it centres on young kids shellshocked by the death of a parent (as in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) and features supernatural forces elbowing their way into the real world (a la Stranger Things).

The source material – a long-established comic series created by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez – predates the rise of Netflix but it is remarkable how it dovetails with the streaming service’s thematic obsessions and commercial priorities (all the more remarkable when you learn of its chequered history, with three different pilots filmed at various studios in the past decade and ambitious plans for a movie trilogy shelved).

It is, at heart, a horror-tinged fantasy epic, but before all the spooky stuff really kicks in, it begins as a textured and wrenching story of loss.

After the abrupt murder of teacher Rendell Locke, harrowingly relived in flashback, his widow Nina (Darby Stanchfield) is in the process of relocating their young family from rainy Washington to chilly Massachusetts. This is the site of Rendell’s long-abandoned family seat, Keyhouse, a gothic pile on the outskirts of the small town of Matheson. If Nina has uprooted their lives in search of a fresh start, the locals are already aware of – and acutely intrigued by – the Locke family’s tragic circumstances.

Adolescents Tyler (Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones) are wrestling with heightened feelings of anger and anguish over their father’s death. Seemingly less affected is their much younger brother Bode (Jackson Robert Scott, who played poor doomed Georgie in the recent It films). His name is pronounced “Bodie”, and with his predilection for wandering off, it is shouted aloud so often you begin to wonder if the late Rendell’s many secrets included a deep love for 1970s Brit-cop classic The Professionals.

After experiencing such seismic trauma, the bickering young Lockes are in bad shape, and when they pull up in front of their new digs, the mansion looms over them hungrily. It is a terrific bit of production design, somewhere between the gothic silhouette of the Addams Family’s 1313 Cemetery Lane and the grand but higgledy-piggledy chateau from Knives Out. Inside, the echoey rooms and hallways feature enviable cornicing and a lot of weird-looking doors.

Keyhouse represents the Locke family legacy in more ways than one, as the kids soon uncover a sprawling supernatural mythology that revolves around enchanted keys, each with its own signature power. Bode, most attuned to the occult vibrations of a magical world apparently undetectable to adults, hears them whispering from nooks and crannies. He also strikes up a friendship with a spectral voice (Laysla De Oliveira) at the bottom of Keyhouse’s neglected well.

It sounds like an odd thing to say when discussing ancient keys imbued with supernatural powers, but the magical stuff seems innocuous enough at first, even fun. One key turns any door into a gateway to any other door the user has ever seen: fantastical, but easy enough to get your head around as a concept. It is only a few episodes in, once Bode has harvested more of the scattered artefacts, that it is intimated that some keys have the power to unlock people, manifesting Cronenberg-esque holes in their flesh. It hints at how wild the series becomes, mixing haunted house tropes with some of the psychedelic innerspace voyages of Legion.

Another useful touchstone is Buffy, since the elder Locke kids are trying to fit in at their new school while also trying to cope with demonic incursions. In this, Locke and Key benefits from two excellent performances at its centre. Jessup, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Ryan Phillippe, is the surprisingly sensitive hockey jock who feels responsible for his father’s death while his introvert artist sister, played by English actor Jones, chooses such a radical shortcut in dealing with her mental pain that she essentially gets a whole new character to play.

This first 10-episode season has been overseen by Carlton Cuse (the former Lost co-producer who transformed Bates Motel from desperate-sounding Psycho prequel into something with its own unsettling flavour) and Meredith Averill (producer and writer on The Haunting of Hill House). Both have experience in wringing unexpected new directions out of old tropes.

While much of Locke and Key feels superficially familiar, cushioned by the superior production design and a lush score, there are enough deliberately disconcerting or oddball moments to make it a constantly evolving pleasure. And, with multiple volumes of the collected comic series already on bookstore shelves, this reincarnation could just be the start.

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