When I heard a pilot was going to be made based on one of my favorite comic books, IDW’s Locke & Key, I was beyond thrilled. Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s story about a family who experience family tragedy only to find themselves the target of a force who is determined to make them keep experiencing supernatural horrors until they give up keys their father may have died trying to protect is a phenomenal one.While it would have been an enormous advantage to both IDW and the comic industry at large to have Locke & Key brought to the screen by FOX, I was somewhat apprehensive as to the network’s track record. Although the same can be said about most of the major network television stations out there these days, I would have been much more comfortable had this project been originally aimed for something like HBO or AMC. But, it wasn’t and something that had huge potential has now landed in the sad wasteland of failed television pilots. And yes, there are a lot of those.
I couldn’t make it to the screening of the Locke & Key pilot at San Diego Comic-Con but was recently able to get my hands on a copy. I’ve only seen a few clips from the failed Wonder Woman pilot but I can easily say Locke & Key is the more deserving of the two as far as comic book adaptations go. Here is my mostly spoiler filled review of what I saw.
The Locke & Key pilot is based on almost the entirety of the “Welcome to Lovecraft” arc of the comic book. I was a little surprised by this considering it’s not a very long series as it stands and you’d want to make sure you had enough material for an extended television series. In a way, the pilot almost felt like a preview of what an entire series could be rather than simply an introduction to the world. Apparently at the SDCC panel following the screening Hill said only eight episodes could be made from the comics already published so they would have had to come up with new material to fill out the show regardless. Even though a lot of ground is covered in the episode, which runs around 50 minutes, everything happens very slowly and it feels significantly longer than that. But that’s a good thing and at times the pilot sort of reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining perhaps because the family’s home, Key House, was large and secluded and the show itself was filmed in the winter.
Written by Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles showrunner Josh Friedman and directed by frequent music video director Mark Romanek (you may remember a little Nine Inch Nails video for “Closer”), Locke & Key was certainly a fans dream come true and expertly crafted. Although the plot follows “Welcome to Lovecraft,” they chose to pace the story a little differently by showing the family tragedy through interspersed flashbacks that don’t hinder the storytelling but make it even more dramatic. There are a few distinct changes but nothing that changes the story all that much. The family’s mother, Nina, is still holding it together quite well compared to how I remember her from the first arc, daughter Kinsey is a swimmer at school rather than a track star (due to the weather limitations while filming I would suppose) and doesn’t yet have her radical hair and piercings change and their father’s killer, Sam Lesser, acts alone in his violence. Well, alone besides Dodge of course.We know the main antagonist of Locke & Key as Dodge (along with a few other names) but in the pilot, the evil mastermind isn’t really given a name beyond Echo or the Girl in the Well. The actress who plays the role, Ksenia Solo, has a distinct Ring feeling to her and a voice as sweet as you can imagine. Which of course makes her all the more frightening. The actress did a great job conveying the silver-tongued Dodge and I wonder what the creators would have done with her had they gotten to the Gender Key. Would they have cast a male or altered her to appear male? The way she appears in the pilot I could see them doing either.
The cast are what really made Locke & Key work for me. Hill has developed these characters very well and I had high expectations for any actors stepping into those roles. Luckily I wasn’t disappointed. Jesse McCartney, a musician/actor, was phenomenal in the role of Tyler. This I did not expect, in fact, after hearing he was cast I was worried his addition might ruin the show. That was certainly not the case as he’s actually quite accomplished and fits perfectly into the family role and unexpected patriarch. Speaking of which, Rendell, their ill-fated father, is portrayed by Mark Pellegrino who played Jacob on Lost and Bishop on the American version of Being Human. He doesn’t have a large role obviously but there’s more at work with him in the pilot than there has been so far in the comic. His widow, Nina is played by Lord of the Rings’ Miranda Otto who as I mentioned is slightly more kept together in the pilot but plays the mother role particularly well with the three young actors.
Sarah Bolger’s Kinsey and Skylar Gaertner’s Bode are also well placed. Bolger’s work I have followed for some time beginning with her starring role alongside her younger sister in 2002’s In America through my current obsession, The Tudors. She doesn’t quite have enough time to get to the more rebellious Kinsey we know and love but her arguments with Nina show she would have been perfect at it. Gaertner is just the cutest little Bode and shows no hesitation when taking the lead in the pilot. Definitely a talent for one so young. Rendell’s brother Duncan also plays a small role in the pilot and is played by Sin City’s Nick Stahl. I would have looked forward to seeing his story unfold. And then of course there is the other villain of the piece, Sam Lesser played by a perfectly mad Harrison Thomas.
For the most part, Locke & Key was a well-done pilot. Some aspects were made extremely well and very few fell short in my eyes. I fear perhaps that it was not commercial enough for FOX. I can’t say it was too weird, especially when you consider the success of something like Fringe on the same channel, but it was probably too big a leap for them into the fantasy realm. The aspect of magical keys is not too foreign I’d hope and seeing them in action was truly a delight. Although they sadly did not utilize they amazing resource of Skelton Studios, the ones charged with creating those cool looking replicas from the comics for IDW, for the props. I recently spoke with Israel Skelton who mentioned they probably needed them to have a larger physical presence on screen. And Key House? They couldn’t have picked a better location.
Another part of the pilot that I know probably confused the executives and made them question the decision to go forward was the diversion from the source material at the very end. We have a nice quiet moment with the entire family, including Rendell’s urn, out by an old tree. All well and good until the camera shows us what’s inside that tree – a room full of glass jars filled with memories. And the one highlighted? A wild, terrifying Nina screaming Rendell’s name. Now, readers of the comic know exactly what these strange glass cages are all about and even thought we haven’t seen this exact vision, it certainly would have confused viewers who don’t yet know about the Head Key. I can imagine that would throw quite a few people off and be far too out-there for the casual viewer.
Science-fiction and fantasy can play well for the masses when give then proper introduction but this is where that introduction ran off the rails a bit. Don’t get me wrong, as a fan of the comic, I thought it was amazing and I got chills again just thinking about it but without at least an explanation of the Head Key beforehand it’s completely obtuse. At the SDCC panel, Friedman said he created the memory jar tree (and Hill loved the idea) to connect Nina more to the mythology that he felt she was slightly separated from. I now wonder how much of the pilot overall was hinting at things to come in the comic that Hill may have shared with the creators and how much was their own interpretation of the material, specifically in relation to Rendell. As to fleshing out the story of the comic, Friedman also said at SDCC that they would have fallen into a “key of the week” routine to keep things going. There are quite a lot of keys Hill hasn’t delved into fully, especially when you think about issue #3 of “Keys to the Kingdom,” so that approach definitely could have worked.
Perhaps Locke & Key would have played much better to an audience on HBO or the like or perhaps even as an extended mini-series. I don’t know if mainstream audiences were ready for a story like this but it’s something that definitely deserved the chance to be developed. I still wish someone would come along and see the prospect a show like this has or that they would extend the viewership of the pilot from the individuals in the press or those at SDCC and release it on iTunes. There’s nothing like strong viewer reaction to show the potential of an amazing project. Luckily, even if it never goes anywhere, we still have the comics and their extraordinary stories.