SDCC 2011: Locke and Key Pilot Unlocks Lots of Magic

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The pilot of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's fantasy horror series Locke and Key was shown at San Diego Comic Con. The pilot was passed on by FOX and will not be aired on television, but the studio agreed to let the creators air it for fans at SDCC. Studios normally prefer not to show failed pilots (notice that there was no Wonder Woman pilot screening at SDCC), so this proved to be a rare treat for fans of the critically acclaimed series.

The Good

Fans will be surprised to hear that the entire first volume, Welcome to Lovecraft, was the basis for the first hour-long episode. The story follows the Locke family after they relocate to an old family estate called Keyhouse after the father, Rendell, was killed by psychopathic teenager Sam Lesser. As big brother Tyler, sister Kinsey, and ever-adventurous little brother Bode try to adapt to life without a father in a new town, the supernatural force behind the murder begins to show itself in the form of a scary-as-hell little girl trapped at the bottom of a well.

After arriving at Keyhouse, Bode's curious nature leads him to discover the Ghost Key, which temporarily kills him and allows his spirit to invisibly travel the grounds. Bode actually tells his family all about the key’s powers, but since he's only a little boy they brush it off thinking he's just using his wild imagination to cope with the loss of his father. Child actor Skylar Gaertner proves to be undeniably charming in a role that Friedman said "is the lynchpin of the story" and was the most important casting decision. Gaertner shines as he reacts with wonder at the power of the key and genuine terror when he first encounters the girl in the well.

Ksenia Solo plays the evil entity magically trapped inside the well house and calls out to Bode for help. She tricks him into bringing her seemingly innocent items, a pair of scissors and a hand mirror, and uses them to help the murderous Sam escape from jail and finish obtaining the keys that will release her from her prison. Solo uses her big blue eyes and unsettlingly sweet voice to woo Bode into aiding her, providing for some of the best sequences in the pilot, including one where she switches tones and comes after Bode in a manner that makes the girl from The Grudge look like Tinkerbell.

Similar moments of terror, shock, and surprise are present throughout. The constant suspense found in Hill's storytelling is expertly used here to propel each scene with a new mystery or dangerous situation. The scene where Bode first enters the well house earned a few jumps and shrieks from the audience. The fusion of subtle fantasy elements with a growing sense of danger made for wondrous pacing. Whether it’s learning about a new key, watching Sam break out of prison and make a beeline for Keyhouse, or seeing how each character deals with the tragic and supernatural events that have taken hold of their lives, the show moves forward in a manner that had me holding my breath until the end of each scene.

Jesse McCartney's performance was noteworthy for being one of great emotional depth. The last movie I saw of his was Alvin and the Chipmunks as the voice of Theodore, so watching him take on the role of Tyler with such high quality was as surprising as it was impressive. He completely immerses himself in the role of a tortured young man who has good reason to blame himself for the death of his father. He even puts his body language to excellent use as he slumps his shoulders, puts his hood up, and chooses to look anywhere but people's eyes. His best scene is one where he accidentally spills ketchup on his shirt which forces him to experience a heart-breaking flashback where he relives watching his father’s murder. The entire school lunchroom looks on in shock as he flips his lid and shouts to the lunch room that he's the new guy with the murdered dad. The follow-up scene where Kinsey berates him for dealing with his pain in such selfish fashion hits home and truly defines his character. It is a shame audiences won't be able to see his character arc develop as he continues to deal with the loss of his father.

The old manor used for Keyhouse could not have been better chosen. Its historic architecture, faded bricks, and expansive grounds covered in snow make every shot a visual delight. A particularly beautiful scene comes at night when Bode walks across the grounds guided by only a small blue lantern. The shots of the girl in the well are expertly cast in shadow, letting the light hit only her eyes for a mesmerizingly creepy effect. The times before Rendell's death are given a warm, glowing feel, whereas the arid tone at Keyhouse after his death is created with bleak whites, blues, and blacks as if the whole place is drowned in sorrow and misery. The presentation felt unlike anything else on television and would have been a welcome change to the endless amount of shows about crime solvers, crime investigators, and crime fighters.

The end of the pilot ends on an intriguing cliffhanger not present in the comic. As the family finds their first moment of peace since the incident, the music turns tense and the camera goes through a small keyhole in a tree to reveal a secret room within it. The room holds many jars and bottles full of tiny people clamoring for release. A close-up of one shows Nina trapped inside screaming out Rendell's name. Anyone who has read Volume 2 of the series knows that this is a result of the Head Key being used to remove a memory, and it is used here as a bizarre visual that effectively sets up a mystery for future episodes. Hill claimed that the idea was so good that he already has plans to incorporate it into the comic book.

The Bad

In order to fit an entire graphic novel into an hour-long pilot, several elements were removed from the story. Instead of giving equal focus to all of the kids, Tyler and Bode are given ample screen time while poor Kinsey's arc of re-discovering her identity was cast to the side. She acts as a supporting character that constantly has to deal with Tyler's outbursts and distant behavior, while she never gets a chance to truly shine. One could assume her character would get more attention in subsequent episodes, but her being side-lined stands out in the pilot.

Also missing is the violence and more mature themed events. For example, Sam originally assaulted and shot Rendell while his friend raped the mother, Nina, before she gets back up and sinks an axe into the back of her attacker's head. Another missing scene is when Tyler has a bloody scuffle with Sam where he smashes his face in with a brick. In the pilot, it's never explicitly shown how Sam's face gets disfigured; only a vague flashback where Tyler sees his father get shot and grabs a brick. While a woman getting raped and one teenager brutally disfiguring another's face is not fit for most television networks, its absence is felt. However, this does not weaken the show since the more eerie and sinister elements are fleshed out instead to make the implied violence hold true weight.

The biggest gripe to be had was the special effects used to show Bode and Tyler as ghosts. Their vaporous forms look amateur and fail to seamlessly coexist with the creepy Keyhouse. With such great effects in other TV shows, these ghosts feel like they would have hardly been considered acceptable ten years ago.


As for why the series was not picked up, the creators, TV pilot writer Josh Friedman, and a few reps from FOX all weighed in. The general consensus was that they were all extremely grateful for the opportunity to film a pilot and, despite it not being picked up, they were proud of the job they did and wanted a chance to share it with fans. The pilot had the distinct feel of an hour-long movie instead of a traditional TV pilot, and apparently that made FOX feel it was too cinematic and that quality would not be conducive to creating an ongoing TV series. That sounds similar to the initial rumors of FOX liking the quality of the pilot, but did not feel it would fit into their schedule.

At the panel, Hill said that subsequent episodes would have followed a “key of the week” format where the story would progress as the family encountered new keys each episode, much like the monsters in X-Files. Rodriguez pointed out that there were several pages in the February issue in Volume 4 where many different keys were given a short introduction, and that entire episodes could have been developed based around them before going back to the original source material.

When one audience member bashed FOX for cancelling the series along with his other favorites, the whole panel came to the studio’s defense. Friedman was especially vocal when he said, “FOX takes a lot of heat from this audience every year for all these shows. Sometimes people say, ‘I can’t believe you’re trying to do another show on FOX! What kind of f***ing idiot are you?’ And I say, ‘Most shows don’t get picked up, and most shows get cancelled.’ What I like about FOX, more than other big networks, is that they take chances. Most genre shows get canceled. It’s very hard to get a genre show on television. FOX does more genre shows. They’ve given us a lot more chances. I think they get berated year in and year out because it doesn’t work out.”

The Verdict

Despite the support for the studio that passed on the show, I personally can’t help but wish they had filmed the pilot for a different network. With The Walking Dead already being a big hit, the opportunity for adapting comics to television has never been better. After the pilot was done, despite any of the reservations I mentioned earlier, it undeniably blew me away. It was like watching Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time again: an experience wrought with as much imagination and magic as it is tension and terror.

Queerly enough, even after the panelists vehemently denied any hope for the TV show to be picked up by a network, turned into a movie, or have the pilot released on DVD, FOX was handing these out at their booth:

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