Sunday, August 16, 2020

[Review] HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” Haunts With Horrors Human and Monstrous in Compelling Series

Note: This review covers the first five episodes screened.

H.P. Lovecraft unleashed cosmic horrors, elder things, and countless indescribable beasties on the world, but the author developed a reputation for his xenophobic and blatantly racist written works, as well. Author Matt Ruff addressed both sides of Lovecraft – the good and the bad- in his novel Lovecraft Country. He created a pulpy horror world where Lovecraft’s creatures exist during the era of Jim Crow laws. The collision of interdimensional magic with a dark period in American history created a richly textured, complex world with equally complex characters that made for a compelling story through terrors real and imagined. Naturally, it made good fodder for adaptation. Developed by Misha Green and produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, HBO’s Lovecraft Country explores every bit of the heartbreak, triumphs, and gruesome horrors of the novel in exquisite detail.

The series opens with a thrilling scene on a battlefield. Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) makes his way through human and tentacled foe alike, while U.F.O.’s fly overhead. It’s a colorful sci-fi spectacle right out of Atticus’s favorite pulp novels, culminating in a showdown between a giant monstrosity and baseball player Jackie Robinson. It’s all a dream. Atticus wakes with a start on the back of his segregated bus. The contrast is clear; his imagined horrors provide escapism to the real horrors of a Black man traveling across the country in 1950s America.

Atticus, a military veteran, is heading home to Chicago to find his father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), after receiving a distressing letter. Monstrose is long gone when he arrives, though. George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) leaves wife Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) and daughter behind to join nephew Atticus in the search. Childhood friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollet) also tags along on their road trip, intending to depart for her destination somewhere along the way. Driving from Chicago to Massachusetts proves perilous thanks to hostile police and citizens eager to abide by the Jim Crow laws that would allow them to do the group harm. That’s before they encounter Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee) and Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn), a daughter-father team full of otherworldly secrets and dangerous magic.

As fans of Ruff’s novel already know, Lovecraft Country is an anthology of sorts. Each main character gets their own story and brush with horror, in very different ways. Of the first five episodes reviewed, they follow the source material in order, but Green expands on them and makes this story her own. Green fine tunes what worked so well about the novel but raises the horrors and stakes to an acute level that packs a visceral punch. She’s not afraid to kill or torture her darlings, adding a whole new emotional heft to the narrative.

The production design is nothing short of spectacular. The 1950s setting is fully immersive, as are all the sprawling estates, adventure-filled cave systems, and beyond. The creature designs and special effects make for an instant draw for the horror fan- there’s an insane number of ghoulish monsters packed in, from Lovecraftian beasts to horrifically disfigured ghosts, and so much more. While many of the monsters encountered are of the human variety, they tend to work well as isolating elements; our protagonists have nowhere to go, and no one is willing to help them. Imminent threats exist at every turn.

That the characters are what makes this show something remarkable speaks volumes of the writers and the cast involved. The trials and tribulations they endure make them instantly endearing, but every single one is a fully realized character with their own distinct set of issues and flaws. Majors imbues Atticus with the plucky heroism befitting his pulp fiction, but with the lingering trauma of war and estrangement with his father that leaves him haunted. Smollett threatens to run away with the series as Letitia, bringing a fiery ferocity that masks her insecurities. Williams wears Montrose’s inner turmoil on his sleeves, lashing out at family one minute and embracing who he is with unbridled freedom the next- and it’ll leave you breathless. Lovecraft Country goes big an epic adventure and supernatural terrors, but it’s the small character moments that matter most. Green and her actors create so much depth and characterization from subtle details and physical expression.

If there’s a flaw, the anthology-nature of the novel-turned-series makes flow a little strange at times. As the episodes change, the narrative often shifts to a different character in Atticus’s family and their confrontations with evil. In turn, that tends to cause tonal shifts that different flavors of horror tend to bring. Timelines aren’t always immediately apparent, either. In such a densely packed universe, this unique anthology-like format can waver in its pacing.

Still, it’s a relatively small thing compared to the soaring highs introduced so far. Lovecraft Country kicks off with a bang and keeps the onslaught of horror coming. The creature work is thrilling, the 1950s setting offers a smart way to reconcile both aspects of Lovecraft, and the gore is aplenty. It’s a highly stylized series full of ambition, handled with confident vision. There’s an insane amount of symbolism, depth, and subtext to parcel out, adding layers to a pulp monster fest, but its brilliant character work grounds it. It’s the best of both worlds; horror taken seriously and approached with intelligence, but without forgoing the fun supernatural elements and man-eating creatures that keep us gleefully hooked. 

Lovecraft Country premieres on HBO on August 16, 2020.

Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on August 7, 2020.


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