The mysterious key first appeared to Cartlon Cuse in 2008. The Hollywood producer, coming off the mind-altering commercial and cult following of “Lost” was reading a new comic book series, “Locke & Key,” published by IDW Publishing. It was written by Joe Hill, a successful and young horror writer—also the son of somebody named Stephen King—and an amazing up-and-coming artist named Gabriel Rodriguez.
For Cuse, he knew a good thing when he saw one. “I really loved it,” he told Super over Google Hangouts. “I thought it was exceptional. It was emotional and yet the genre stuff felt really fresh and it didn’t feel derivative of 29 other things which is really hard in the haunted house space.”
He wanted the chance to adapt it, but he said the rights “had been bought by some guy named Steven Speilberg. Ever heard of him?” Indeed, Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment had developed a pilot starring Miranda Otto as Nina Locke that was ultimately not picked up by Fox. “Four years ago, I was having a meeting with my agent in New York about something else and he said he heading out for ‘Locke & Key’ and I said, wait what that comic is available now?” It turned out the rights had reverted to Hill. Cuse told his agent to tell Hill how much he loved the comic book. “It turned out Joe Hill was a fan of the shows I had done and I got together with joe hill and he was excited to be working with me and I with him and we started down the development path together.”
The show’s path would not be easy. There was a TV movie with streaming service Hulu that didn’t get finished to star Frances O’Connor as Nina. “We had a few more twists and turns in the road the project finally wound up in Netflix. When we sold it to Netflix, Meredith came on board that was a wonderful, fortuitous and really important demarcation point.” Here was another key.
He is talking about Meredith Averill, the writer on one of the best shows ever on Netflix, “The Haunting of Hill House,” and yes, another haunted house series. “I think working on one haunted house show and then jumping to another haunted house show, apparently, this has become my brand,” she said with a laugh. “There are some definite similarities between them in that the house is very much a character. We’re dealing with this family that is coping with immense grief and guilt. That’s where the similarities end. This show is more on the fantasy axis, a little lighter. Hill house was much darker but we do employ flashbacks to kind of inform our present story and for surprising reveals about our characters. We like to tell stories in a nonlinear kind of fashion, and that was always something that I loved.”
With Cuse and Averill as showrunners, “Locke & Key” emerged from the gloom of development mists in 2020. After the tragic shooting death of Rendell Locke, the Locke family arrives at the small town of Matheson, Massachusetts to try and make a fresh start in the ancestral Locke home called Keyhouse, the aforementioned haunted house of the show. Everyone deals in their own way. Mother Nina Locke (Darby Stanchfield) is agonizingly trying to stay away from the bottle. Tyler (Connor Jessup) is trying to become take up the role of family protector. Kinsey (Emilia Jones) just wants to stop being so sad. Youngest son Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) wants to explore Keyhouse. But Keyhouse has its wonderful, terrible secrets—powerful, dangerous keys each capable of a different feat—and soon, Bode starts finding them. Initially the source much wonder, they bring a threat because deep in Keyhouse lurks a creature who wants the keys, the maleficent entity known as Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira).
The ten-episode series changes up a lot of plot twists from the comic book. Unlike other streaming shows which take a few episodes to start really going, “Locke & Key” throws the reader into the mix right away. The first episode, “Welcome to Matheson” is written by Hill and producer Aron Eli Coleite and has all you need to know to get into the show. “We aren’t telling the entire story of the comics this season; we are telling a big chunk of it,” Cuse notes. That’s good, because the excellent comic book series essentially ran from 2008 to 2013; a new story starts later this year, meaning, should the show be renewed, there would be a lot of Keyhouse left to be explored.
Stanchfield is the biggest name in the cast having previously done a lot of TV (such as AMC’s “Mad Men”) but most notably presidential chief of staff Abby Whelan on Shonda Rhimes’ hit show “Scandal.” “When I joined the show, Meredith the showrunner told me this is not going to be a literal interpretation of Nina, you’re not going to be a full-on drunk. It was written very different. They wanted me to bring my own interpretation to it. ‘Scandal’ was a political drama and this is a family show, a fantasy, and a murder mystery full of magic and huge special effects, so it’s the polar opposite of my previous seven-year stint,” she said. Jessup said, “I had done some science fiction before but never fantasy like this. The sci-fi that I did was more high-concept in a way and less grounded in the real world so this was a new experience for me, too. Tyler is the one who at the beginning is very wary and reluctant. He feels like he has to fill the vacuum of his dad’s death, that he has the responsibility to protect his siblings, but he doesn’t know how.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the magic on the show is how anyone under 18 can’t see it—with one exception. “I would say that it’s when Nina relapses and becomes inebriated, she can see the magic again, there’s disbelief about whether she’s crazy or is it real, all of the emotions that come with the possibility of the magic being real was so rich to explore and I like how that is a rule in this world, that if an adult takes a mind-altering substance they can be part of this world. I think that’s fantastically twisted and unique.”
Everyone raves about the creative nature of the show, particularly the magical keys, which were admittedly a challenge from a production standpoint. There is the Anywhere Key, which allows the door to open up to literally anywhere the person had previously been to. But everyone’s favorite seems to be the Head Key, which allows a person to open up their own heads to explore and, if they want, change things. “I think some of the things that were the most imaginative in the comics were the things that literally kept us up at night,” Cuse said. “Like the Head Key, which required incredible visual imagery that felt very extreme was tonally very difficult to pull off on the budget and schedule we had for television.” Averill loved the Head Key: “For all of the challenges it represented, it was creatively exciting and visually some of the most memorable scenes in our season.”
The show featured young leads but isn’t afraid to get into the dark, difficult places or the amazing places. Carlton Cuse eels other people can find the same key he has found now that he’s unlocked his adaptation of “Locke & Key”: “I think what Joe and Gabe did with the comic was very original. Even though we remixed it, it’s still a really cool, interesting story. A little ‘Harry Potter,’ a little ‘Stranger Things,’ a little ‘Chronicles of Narnia,’ but I think ours feels very original and fresh and for people who like this genre of storytelling, it’ll be a really enjoyable experience.”
“Locke & Key” is now streaming on Netflix.