This column has, by reputation, a soft spot for the femme fatale figure. It will not, however, roll over and purr for any femme fatale. It draws the line at the femme fatale who lives in the bottom of a well in a near-derelict edifice that is attached to an ostentatiously spooky old house. You have to draw a line somewhere.
Said figure, referred to in some online discussions as Evil Well Girl (played with great panache by Canadian Laysla De Oliveira), is a major figure in Locke & Key, which arrived recently on Netflix with much fanfare. Why the fanfare? Well, the 10-part drama is based on a popular and much-praised comic-book series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. You see, there have been multiple attempts to adapt the material as a TV series, miniseries or movie. All failed. Now along comes this version, created for TV by Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Meredith Averill (The Haunting of Hill House.)
If you are to believe the promotional material and some early reviews, Locke & Key has the charm, the spooks and the vibe of Stranger Things. It doesn’t. The series is another example of a streaming service using its vast resources to adapt sci-fi, fantasy or horror material and throwing good money down the well.
It is a very curious, lavish concoction and one can see the well-meaning attempts to link it to Stranger Things. (Not to mention seeing Netflix’s use of algorithms to choose content.) It has a compellingly sassy and adventurous little kid, moody teenagers and mysterious stuff going on. Also, the teen lives are presented as though a rather mediocre 1980s movie were unfolding. What it doesn’t have is the charm and wry humour of Stranger Things, nor its tenderness.
The bare bones of the story is this: The Locke family, mom Nina (Darby Stanchfield), teenagers Tyler (Canadian Connor Jessup) and Kinsey (Emilia Jones), plus little Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), flee Seattle after the traumatizing death of dad Locke (Bill Heck, who is in many flashbacks). They relocate to the old Locke family home in remote, wintry Massachusetts. (That part was filmed in Nova Scotia and most of the series was made in Toronto.) The huge and creepy pile, known as Key House, has many rooms, plus magical keys – something to do with an ancient curse – secret spaces, and that devilishly winsome woman down the well.
While Tyler and Kinsey go to the local high school and have high-school adventures, good and bad – you can see the incidents and emotional injuries coming a mile away – little Bode is introduced to the magic keys by the femme fatale in the well. One key unlocks doors to any place in the world as long as you’ve been there before; another lets you shape-shift in various physical manifestations; and another allows you to be a ghost.
After Bode uses a key and gets to visit an ice-cream store and is well pleased, things go awry and get much darker. One of the few links with Stranger Things is the use of the premise that the kids know that something weird is going on, but adults are oblivious. Then, the weirdness does go on and on. What’s missing in the series, among other things, is a tonal consistency that holds your attention. There are episodes devoted to Kinsey dealing with the mean girls at school. There is heavy attention paid to Tyler, a hockey player, dealing with the young women attracted to him while he’s still grieving the loss of his father. And, well, mom has a bit of a drinking problem.
At the same time, there are scenes of horror meant to make the viewer jump and sometimes they do, but they seem to follow upon some utterly illogical move by the characters, as though this were all part of a cheesy horror film. In fact, horror films both classic and cheesy are referenced throughout, as though the series were a quiz for nerdy connoisseurs of horror cliché. It doesn’t make a blind bit of sense.
Even as a distraction, Locke & Key looks like a misfire. The little guy Bode is a captivating character, but not as enchanting as any figure in Stranger Things. And, as for the femme fatale from down in the well, you wouldn’t believe the things she does when she gets out and goes nightclubbing. This column was aghast. You have to draw a line somewhere.