The Long Strange Journey Of ‘Locke & Key’

Development hell is a fate that way too many geek culture projects find themselves in, as the initial excitement of a creative project dulls over time as the money just doesn’t come through. The vast majority of efforts that find themselves in limbo forever, much to our chagrin. But every once in a while, Houdini-like, a long-awaited project finally claws its way to life. This week sees the debut of one such project, the TV adaptation of indie comic hit Locke & Key, which started production ten whole years ago.

Locke & Key

The Unlocking

Locke & Key was the first comic book venture by horror writer Joe Hill. Since then, the son of Stephen King has cemented his legacy as one of the modern era’s most dependable scare-men, with his own line at DC and numerous other adaptations, including NOS4A2 over at AMC. But your first love is often your most powerful, and Locke & Key holds a powerful spell on its fanbase.

Here’s the gist: there’s a old house, called Keyhouse, in a small Massachusetts town. Inside Keyhouse is a door to another realm, populated by horrific demons. When it was first opened, a group of the creatures came through, only to be transmuted into a substance called “whispering iron.” That iron was made into an assortment of keys, each of which carries an occult power.

When the Locke family moves back there after their father is murdered, each of them interacts with Keyhouse in a different way. And the magic of the place means that once you turn eighteen, you forget everything about it and it just becomes another spooky old house. But a strange young woman trapped in a well has plans for Keyhouse and the people living there.

Locke & Key Fox Pilot

First Tumbler

Dimension Films optioned the series shortly after the first issue was published. They obviously saw big things coming for Hill and the franchise. Dimension’s initial intention was to make a feature film around the property, but they couldn’t get any momentum and the rights reverted to Hill after the option period ended.

Dreamworks was next up at bat. They brought the duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, at the time best known for scripting the first two Transformers films, on board to shepherd the story. Then a real big name signed on – Steven Spielberg attached as a producer, and the target changed to TV. A budget was set, actors were cast and Fox not only gave the OK for a pilot to be filmed, but announced they would go straight to series production. That pilot drew directly from the book’s first arc, with boy bander Jesse McCartney cast as Tyler Locke.

Shot in the winter, the test episode covered a lot of ground, with Hill at the time saying that the entire run of comics published up to that date could only fill 8 episodes of the show, so the writers would need to come up with their own ideas and storylines. Music video director Mark Romanek directed the pilot, but when it was time for the network to make the schedule, Locke & Key was nowhere to be found. The best theory is that the network was also debuting J.J. Abrams’ supernatural mystery Alcatraz and felt that having two similar shows would cut into the audience of both. There was some brief talk of running it as a mini-series instead, but that came to naught.

We were at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2011 when the pilot was shown to the public for the first time, but we didn’t get to see it. The lines were insanely long, and everybody who made it inside raved. Even though Fox passed, other networks like SyFy looked to be interested. And then… nothing. The actors all went on to other roles, and it looked like the doors of Keyhouse would remain closed forever.

Locke & Key

Dead Bolt

When a pilot doesn’t get picked up, it’s hard to wash the stigma off. Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez continued to tell Keyhouse’s stories in the pages of the comics, with the story of the Lockes ending in 2013, followed by a series of one-shots over the next few years.

2014 saw Universal Pictures pick up the option for a trilogy of films, seeing them as low-budget horror numbers. That didn’t last terribly long, as advocates at the studio resigned and left Locke & Key without anybody to push for it. Once again, the rights reverted to Hill, who found his commercial profile rising as a horror talent in his own right.

2016 saw Hill take another grab at the brass ring. This time, he would pair with David Alpert and Rick Jacobs of Skybound Entertainment, two men who had experience bringing comics to the screen with the Walking Dead franchise. Hill was set to write a new take on the property for TV, with the intent of having a solid script developed before it’s shopped to both broadcast and cable.

The next year sees the script come to completion and Hill, partnered with publisher IDW, take it to numerous networks. But a sea change in the way we watch TV broadened the potential homes for the Lockes. So Locke & Key found itself with a second chance at life, this time at Hulu. Lost‘s Carlton Cuse and Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson were brought in as producers, and the whole rigmarole started all over again.

Aron Eli Coleite was brought in to head a writer’s room with Cuse, a new cast was hired and a second pilot was filmed. By this time, Derrickson had left and been replaced by a pre-It Andy Muschietti. Rumors from inside Hulu had that pilot testing very well, but the streaming service shockingly passed on it, reportedly on the word of newly-installed CEO Randy Freer. Hulu had paid to keep the writer’s room open after pilot filming, and seven additional episodes were written but never shot. IDW and Hill took that pilot and hit the road once more for yet another round of pitching.

Locke & Key

Master Of Unlocking

Finally, Locke & Key found a forever home at Netflix. The company had found success with horror in the past, but they wanted something a little different this time. When EP Meredith Averill came on, the whole tone of the series was recalibrated. Hulu had pushed hard into the horror angle of the property, but the team took another look at what they’d written and tossed it to start from scratch along a direction that Netflix preferred.

The Locke & Key that finally made it to television is much more fantasy-driven, pushing towards the Stranger Things audience (and away from The Haunting Of Hill House, which Averill also worked on). A big part of the series is the Locke kids coming to terms with the powers of the keys as well as the choices their parents made, and that kind of universal coming of age story tests big across multiple audience demographics.

In addition, through the dozen years that Locke & Key has been locked away, Hill has been coming up with new ideas and concepts for the universe. The premiere episode introduces two completely new keys that never appeared in the comics, and although the ten episodes hit familiar plot points, they do so in tweaked and unexpected ways. Whether the series will be a hit or not is impossible to say, especially since Netflix loves to keep their audience numbers locked away, pardon the pun, but it’s a testament to the power of the comic’s original ideas that so many people pushed it across the finish line.

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