I wasn’t sure what to expect when I tuned in to HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Well, it didn’t take long to get excited by what I was seeing on the small screen.
I’m not sure if it’s a monster movie with racial overtones or a movie about black people in the 1950’s along with some monsters. When it was over I realized it didn’t really matter, because both elements stand out in this fun adventure.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Just back from the war in Korea, Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, “Da Five Bloods”) gets a strange letter from his father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) who’s gone missing from their hometown of Chicago. Montrose seems to have headed off to a place called Arkham, Massachusetts, and wants Atticus to follow. Informed of this, Atticus’ uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) asks, with blasé directness, “home of the corpse reanimator?”
Yes, that Arkham. Because it’s difficult — an understatement — for a Black man to travel cross country in ’50s America, Uncle George agrees to accompany Atticus. He’s published books about “safe Negro travel” and knows the byways. Atticus’ childhood pal, Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, “True Blood”) agrees to go with them, too.
This 10-parter from Misha Green (“Underground,” “Sons of Anarchy”) and Jordan Peele is based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 fantasy horror novel of the same name, which yoked the history of Eisenhower America with the fiction of horror master, H.P. Lovecraft.
MY SAY A pair of the most promising TV newcomers of 2020 — “I May Destroy You,” “P-Valley” — have all-Black casts, Black showrunners, Black perspectives, and a defiant embrace of Black Lives Matter. Equally promising “Lovecraft Country” has all that plus a little bit more. As an inversion of “The Wizard of Oz,” instead of Oz “Lovecraft” has the flat menacing Midwest sprawl of Jim Crow America. Instead of the Munchkins as a welcoming committee, “Lovecraft” offers the shoggoths, which are …
Well, best let Lovecraft himself describe them: ” … shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and re-forming as pustules of greenish light …” He might have added that they have an enthusiastic and insatiable appetite for human flesh.
There’s a touch of “Stranger Things” here, but also “Thelma and Louise” and both “Evil Deads,” which means cars play a key role — one scene, in particular, based on the inexpressible cruelty of “sundown laws.”
To call “Lovecraft Country” “wildly original” seems almost a quaint understatement. But it is wild. And original. Little doubt about that.
Like most effective horror, “Lovecraft” unfolds on familiar terrain — that Midwest sprawl, that real history with real voices (James Baldwin’s, for example, that tracks over another memorable and brutal scene). Then, there’s the abrupt transition to the phantasmagoria — those shoggoths, those multitudes of pustulating eyes, those unrestrained appetites. “Lovecraft” wants to keep us off-balance and does. What’s real, what’s not, gets scrambled together. Like the intrepid travelers in search of Arkham, you’re left with no signposts, certainly no reliable road map.
You too are on your own, but ultimately forced to come to the same unsettling conclusion: That Jim Crow America and Lovecraft Country had more in common than even Lovecraft himself could have imagined.
BOTTOM LINE Terrific newcomer that should wake up this sleepy TV summer in a hurry.
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