In HBO’s ‘Lovecraft Country,’ the Real Horrors of 1950s America Are the Scariest

This fantastical, gory show is at its most effective when it forgets the hokum about ancient orders and concentrates on capturing the experience of Black Americans in the Jim Crow era

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Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in episode one of HBO's "Lovecraft Country."
Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in episode one of HBO's "Lovecraft Country."Credit: HBO / Cellcom tv

Watching HBO’s new summer extravaganza series “Lovecraft Country,” two quotes stood out for me.

“Stories are like people,” our protagonist, Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), tells us early on. “Loving them don’t make them perfect – you just try and cherish them, overlook their flaws.” And then there’s something our hero’s father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), tells Atticus later on: “I told you to stay away from the grand wizardry shit.”

Well, this show has plenty of flaws to overlook and I really wish it had heeded its own advice about staying away from that “grand wizardry shit,” because for me it makes “Lovecraft Country” an OK genre piece rather than something that might have been truly unique and memorable.

When the show is examining racism in 1950s America (and, by extension, the modern-day United States), it’s riveting – reminiscent of last year’s brilliant “Watchmen” adaptation (also on HBO).

But when it abandons its exploration of the reality for Blacks in Jim Crow-era America for ho-hum hokum about an ancient order of Mike Pence look-alikes seeking the “spell for immortality” and access to the Garden of Eden, I quickly lost interest. I don’t know about immortality, but time definitely seemed to stand still for me during some of the five episodes available for review.

I should point out that most reviews for “Lovecraft Country” have been overwhelmingly positive, so mine is the rare voice of mild disappointment. I feel like that idiot critic who dissed “Lady Bird” in 2017.

Yet even with my general frustration over “Lovecraft,” there are elements here that still make it worthy of your time (even if only for an exploratory couple of episodes – after all, it’s not like there’s much else to do this summer).

Here’s my problem: After a brilliant opening episode, I yearned for less of the rote horror and “Indiana Jonesing” that followed. In short, the show is at its best when it confronts the monster of racism head-on (like in episodes Nos. 1 and 5), and far less interesting when it’s confronting actual monsters, no matter what they allude to (like the backstory about a white astrophysicist conducting gruesome experiments on Black people).

The poster for HBO's "Lovecraft Country."Credit: HBO / Cellcom tv

I’ve read various reviews commenting on the timeliness of “Lovecraft Country,” as if it were serendipity that the show is hitting our screens in the midst of renewed calls for racial justice. But that’s like commending Hallmark for releasing movies every year that somehow manage to coincide with the Christmas season.

The reality is that whenever a show about the treatment of Black Americans airs, there’s a damned good chance there’ll be some big story about racial inequality in the Zeitgeist because, well, like Christmas, it’s always there.

Crowd-pleasing blood and gore

Maybe part of the problem personally is that the “H.P. Lovecraft” brand means absolutely nothing to me. I’ve never read any of this American cult writer’s stories – and titles like “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” don’t exactly make me want to alter that habit of a lifetime. I guess I prefer my pulp in blenders rather than on bookshelves.

Another problem is the combination of big-ticket names behind the show: J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. My expectations were sky-high, especially because Peele’s 2019 horror film “Us” is one of the most unsettling, thought-provoking films I have ever seen about what is, in effect, two-tier America. (There are also some big nods to “Get Out” here, too.) And while I might struggle to tell you what Abrams’ last big TV show was, I’m always going to give him a pass thanks to “Lost” and his brilliant 2011 creature feature, “Super 8.”

There are plenty of creatures in “Lovecraft Country,” but that’s really not the show’s big attraction – though it no doubt contributed to the lavish budget. The 10-part series is based on a novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, working in a Lovecraftian world of conspiracies and all-round cosmic craziness. But despite being set in the ’50s, the nods to the present day are there from the very first scene when Majors’ Atticus Freeman is sitting at the back of a segregated bus, going over yet another “bridge named after some dead slave owner” – recalling the Edmund Pettus crossing recently in the news following the death of Rep. John Lewis and the inspirational documentary about him, “Good Trouble.” And, of course, the very name “Freeman” adds an extra layer of context in Black America.  

Korea War veteran Atticus is on his way from the Deep South to his hometown of Chicago, where his father Montrose has gone missing. (What is it about Majors and problematic family relations? We last saw him experiencing similar father-son issues in Spike Lee’s stunning “Da 5 Bloods” earlier this summer.)

A letter purportedly from his father sends Atticus, his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and old school friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) on a road trip to find him. This involves them journeying through various sundown counties – so called because people of color had to be out of them by dusk or face arrest (or worse) from the police.

Jonathan Majors' Atticus Freeman with a fellow bus passenger in HBO's "Lovecraft Country."Credit: HBO / Cellcom tv

This makes for a terrific, taut set-piece in the first episode, where we’re reminded that overt American racism didn’t just exist south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the ’50s and ’60s. (Uncle George’s job as a writer of travel guides for the Black community recalls the Oscar-winning 2018 film “Green Book,” but at least “Lovecraft Country” avoids the taint of being a white savior show.)

It’s soon after this confrontation with racist police officers (does that qualify as a tautology yet?) in Massachusetts that the series veers too much into “Lovecraftian territory” with its talk of witchcraft, spells and 8-foot, vampiric monsters with razor-sharp teeth (actually, that last bit isn’t just talk).

Halfway through viewing the entire season, I’d say “Lovecraft Country” has had two excellent episodes and three average ones. Smollett-Bell lights up the screen whenever she’s involved, bringing a welcome ballsiness to proceedings as the young Chicagoan with family issues of her own. She’s a fearless horror heroine in the Ellen Ripley mold – a doer rather than a scream queen – and I would happily watch her in her own spin-off series.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell ballsy Letitia "Leti" Lewis in HBO's "Lovecraft Country." Credit: HBO / Cellcom tv

Despite my overall sense of being slightly underwhelmed, I’ll keep watching “Lovecraft Country” till its end in October – mainly because I’m really not sure where it’s heading.

After the first two episodes – which could equally have worked as a standalone film – there’s a sense that you’re watching standalone storylines utilizing the same set of characters, rather than a developing show.

To this end, we get the “haunted house” episode; the “night at the museum” episode; the “overt commentary on Black/white lives” episode. If nothing else, that certainly adds to the unpredictability. Indeed, at times “Lovecraft Country” can feel like more like another of Peele’s current shows – his reboot of “The Twilight Zone” – than its own beast, especially given the crapshoot sensibility of what might come next. At this stage, I really wouldn’t be shocked if one episode turned out to be a musical à la “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Grey’s Anatomy.”

I was surprised last month when HBO green-lighted a second season of its reimagined “Perry Mason,” which was another show that left me somewhat underwhelmed. I’ll be less surprised if “Lovecraft Country” gets recommissioned, because I can see this being a big hit thanks to its crowd-pleasing blood and gore, and Smollett-Bell’s charismatic turn. I just hope it leaves the wizardry to Harry Potter next time around.

“Lovecraft Country” is on Hot HBO from Monday at 10 P.M., and also Hot VOD, Yes VOD, Cellcom tv and Next TV. It airs Sundays on HBO and HBO Max in America.

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