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Teenager siblings Kinsey and Tyler shine square, glowing lanterns on a big, black cave rock, while the blue outline of an eerie, omega-shaped door glows behind them. Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

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Netflix’s limp Locke & Key raises the question: Was this comic ever adaptable?

Probably not, and especially not on this budget

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Almost from the moment Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez’s brilliant horror comics series Locke & Key debuted back in 2008, it was in development for a screen adaptation. The Weinsteins bought the screen rights within weeks of the premiere issue publishing, and those rights passed from hand to hand over the next decade; half a dozen film or TV versions were planned, then scrapped. Each time a new iteration was announced, Locke & Key fans publicly expressed their excitement and their hopes that this would be the version that finally worked out.

Their dreams have finally solidified into reality: On Feb. 7, Netflix released the 10-episode first season of a Locke & Key adaptation. And it’s so straightforward, bland, and average that it raises the question: should Locke & Key enthusiasts ever have held out hopes for a screen version of this story?

Hill and Rodríguez’s core series, which runs to six collected books (plus a handful of tiny spin-off stories), follows the Locke family as they move into their ancestral home, a rambling mansion called Keyhouse. Recently widowed mother Nina and her three kids — troubled high-schoolers Tyler and Kinsey, and their energetic younger brother Bode — are all still in shock after the murder of Nina’s husband Rendell. While the older kids navigate their guilt and grief over the events around Rendell’s death, and adapt to a new school and new social pressures, Bode discovers a series of magical keys around the house, and begins experimenting with the powers they give him. He also inadvertently frees something ruthless and monstrous that wants the keys.

Bode Locke, in a bike helmet to protect against dangers, inserts an elaborate key into the lock on a tall wardrobe.
Open sesame.
Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

The Netflix series follows this story fairly faithfully, apart from condensing a fair bit of the action, and building out or paring back various ancillary characters. But from the start, the story that sang on the page feels generic on the screen. The comic’s nightmare images have mostly been replaced with much more prosaic equivalents, or omitted entirely. The characters have been processed into familiar TV archetypes. And the tone feels more like a mildly dark children’s movie than a horror story.

The latter choice is certainly deliberate. Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill have been making the interview rounds, talking about how previous adaptation plans for Locke & Key leaned more on Hill’s horror elements, while the Netflix version veers more toward the fantasy side of the story. Avoiding the comic’s sometimes-extreme gore may have been a sensible enough decision, but they don’t replace it with anything as distinctive. And letting the fantasy elements take over doesn’t work in a production that so rarely feels like it has a fantasy budget.

The Locke & Key comic certainly gives the showrunners a pile of tropes that would be difficult to manage even on a blockbuster budget. Rodríguez’s illustrations often challenge the limits of the comics page, cramming panels with intricate detail and a riot of strange creatures. The TV version simplifies those effects down into disappointingly simplistic interpretations of the same ideas. Even in cases that wouldn’t need to break the bank, the showrunners make frustratingly generic choices: for instance, a manifestation of Kinsey’s fears, rendered in the comic as a newspaper-clad, shaggy-haired, knife-wielding demon, turns into a sort of sloppy zombie version of Kinsey on the screen. And it’s never seen particularly clearly, either. Possibly the show’s directors are trying to obscure the creature to make it more mysterious, but when they have to cut around it during its action scenes, it feels more like they’re ashamed of its generic appearance.

An elaborate key sticks out of the back of a fleshy keyhole in a character’s neck in Netflix’s Locke & Key.
Okay, that’s kinda creepy.
Photo: Ken Woroner/Netflix

Horror can be made on a small budget, mostly by emphasizing shocks and building dread. But Netflix’s Locke & Key rarely nails that feeling of threat. Part of the process of Cuse and Averill reducing the size of the story involves giving more space to the mundane aspects of the Locke kids’ lives, so the story spends more time on their school days and friends. The plotlines don’t pan out into much: Kinsey (Emilia Jones) meets a handful of teenagers who make amateur horror movies, and gets involved with their projects even though she never seems to care about them; Tyler (Connor Jessup) briefly goes out for hockey, and meets a few dim, affable bros. The series can’t find a way to make these characters interesting. Kinsey’s love triangle with two of the filmmaker boys is stiffly executed, without any sense of engagement or chemistry. Tyler’s bro-friendships peter out, forgotten, as he pursues his own not particularly interesting romantic arc.

And at the same time, the threat coming for all of them appears and disappears arbitrarily, without the required sense of menace, a plan, or an approaching deadline. By the end of the first season, the villain, Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira), has become a random pop-up threat, injected abruptly into any episode that’s in danger of getting too hung up on flashbacks or teen friendships. De Oliveira pulls off a few authentically menacing scenes, but in other confrontations, her grimness seems a little laughably overwrought.

The first season of Locke & Key does have a handful of scenes that suggest what this story could have been with a bigger budget, or if the creators had abandoned the source material and followed their own road. When Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) finds a key that turns mirrors into doorways, he gets his mother Nina (Darby Stanchfield) involved, with disastrous effects. The world on the other side of the mirror has its own horror-movie logic, which feels like something out of an entirely different story than most of Locke & Key.

Teenagers Tyler and Kinsey look on as their baby brother Bode invites them to join him inside a giant glowing toybox.
The Head Key takes on a new form.
Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

And when Nina promptly forgets the events after they’re over, Bode, Kinsey, and Tyler are left to process their trauma without any adult input, while knowing the events could repeat, because Nina doesn’t know better. It’s a genuinely creepy conundrum for everyone, and the entire sequence is directed with the taut rush of a good thriller. The season’s final episode similarly pulls off some solid shocks, drawing on the comic’s ideas and energy, while radically changing the storyline.

Netflix’s Locke & Key could use more of that kind of tension, and more of those sense of stakes. And it could use more of that daring willingness to tell a story that goes beyond putting the least expensive parts of Hill and Rodríguez’s comic on the screen, while spackling over the rest of the story with limp teen drama. The strengths of the Locke & Key comic come from Hill’s bold storytelling choices, and Rodríguez’s dramatic, unique way of executing them. The latter was never likely to happen onscreen on a TV budget, and a lot of the former have been smoothed out into a familiar form as well.

Should fans have ever held out hope for a Locke & Key adaptation that would live up to the original? It was unlikely to happen, and given how much of this comparatively small version feels flavorless and familiar, maybe there was never a chance for a Locke & Key show to be as dynamic and exciting as its inspiration.