Lovecraft Country 2020 TV Show Review: Nightmare on Jim Crow Street
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HBO’s new horror series sends a Black family on a quest across 1950s America, where anyone they see might be a monster.
There were a lot of ways “Lovecraft Country” could have gone wrong, but timing didn’t turn out to be one of them. It’s a good moment to get attention for a scary-monster series that rejuvenates the horror genre by making the heroes Black and putting America’s racist history at the center of the story.
HBO, where the 10-episode season of “Lovecraft Country” premieres on Sunday, offered something similar last year with “Watchmen.” But the new series, based on a novel by Matt Ruff and developed for television by Misha Green (“Underground”), is different in a couple of key ways. Race was one theme among many in “Watchmen”; in “Lovecraft Country,” it informs every scene and relationship.
More important, though, is the new show’s attitude to the popular entertainment genres — pulp fiction, comic books, popcorn movies — from which it draws inspiration. It bypasses the high-cult pretensions that, for some of us, made the “Watchmen” adaptation a bit of a drag.
“Lovecraft” fully integrates a noxious real-life history into its fantastical narrative — and reminds us how little some things have changed in the six decades since the story’s setting. But its goal appears to be to scare us into having fun, something it achieves about half the time in the five episodes made available in advance.
That’s not to diminish the impressively seamless job Green has done in wielding the cultural metaphors. (She’s credited as a writer on all 10 episodes, the first three solo.) “Lovecraft” is a quest story: Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), once a shy, scholarly child and now an embittered Korean War veteran, sets off across 1950s Jim Crow America to find his missing father, learn about his dead mother and perhaps exorcise some of his own demons.
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He’s accompanied by various Chicago-based friends and family, including the intrepid, politically active Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), publisher of a “Green Book”-like guide for Black travelers and an aficionado of pulp fiction. Their initial journey takes them to eastern Massachusetts, the Lovecraft country of the title, and to a town called Ardham — one letter away from Arkham, the fictional scene of some of the ghastly H.P. Lovecraft tales that inspired Ruff’s novel. There they run into murderous white cops, a secret society and terrifying vampiric slug-monsters that burrow into the ground in an endearingly meek way when frightened.
Within that Saturday-matinee framework, Green consistently, and not too heavy-handedly, finds ways to link the horrors the characters face with the everyday horrors of Black life. It’s something that’s been done before, going back at least to the original “Night of the Living Dead,” but perhaps not this thoroughly and inventively.
Sometimes the links are literal, as in the idea of poor Blacks being used as subjects for scientific experimentation. But others are more ingrained in the story’s fabric, like the way in which the supernatural illusions the white antagonists inflict on the Black characters constitute a form of gaslighting, making them doubt that the attacks on them are real, or making them think that they’re self-inflicted.
A standard horror-movie device, the magic spell that transforms a character’s appearance, has a different resonance when a Black character is made white and is suddenly treated — by both races — as if she were a human being. In an episode built around Leti’s attempt to integrate a neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, the violent reaction of the white residents is in counterpoint to, and eventually intertwined with, the violent reactions of the ghosts who haunt the house she buys. Throughout, the abuses perpetrated by everyday whites — technically non-monsters — take on an extra malevolence; the occultists, obsessed with eternal life, have at least an understandable motivation.