At a time when streaming services have been impacted by a dearth of new show launches (as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic) it’s gratifying to see that autumn’s big gamble from HBO delivers on its promise.
Matt Ruff wrote the eponymous novel on which Lovecraft Country is based. We find ourselves in the 1950s, in a United States riven by the strict racial segregation policies practiced in many states and where Jim Crow laws are still enforced.
Ruff’s novel, from 2016, daringly and irrepressibly combines drama, fantasy and horror, while simultaneously being a social policy portrait of its era: a segregated, racist post-war United States.
Ruff was inspired by the American writer H.P. Lovecraft, who at the beginning of the 20th century wrote about monsters and alien, occult beings in a parallel dimension, so terrifying that seeing them would damage your mind.
Atticus (Jonathan Mayors) is heading back to his hometown of Chicago to find out what has become of his father (Michael K. Williams). He hasn’t been heard from for more than three months and Atticus is worried.
The journey from Florida takes place in a racially segregated bus, where black passengers are forced to walk when the bus goes on strike. In the northern states, racism is less overt but still present. African-Americans have the worst-paid jobs, the smallest apartments, are regularly harassed by the police and struggle to land a “white” job.
A cryptic letter suggests where the danger is located and a mysterious map leads them on the right track.
As Atticus embarks on a road trip across America to save (?) his father, along with his more reflective uncle, George, and tough childhood friend, Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), they will come to experience this racism first-hand. The redneck police certainly don’t intend to let “negroes” pass unmolested through their county! – in that respect, the series launch might be seen as “well-timed”.
Spiritism and fantasy beings
What begins as a “normal” series (apart from the very first few minutes) quickly changes direction as our heroes are drawn into the woods to confront bloodthirsty monsters from another world/dimension.
Heads and limbs are ripped off, blood spurts and intestines gush forth in all directions. In this universe, horrific demons ravage freely.
The result could have been a very clunky and irritating, painfully forced genre mix, but Misha Green (series creator) has achieved a fine balance between enthralling, intelligent drama and a playful sort of splatter horror.
Yours truly is not a huge fan of zombie/splatter films, but with Lovecraft Country we allowed ourselves to be (mostly) hugely diverted.
Atticus and Leti are on a protracted quest, searching for answers and the solution to unknown mysteries, in which an ancient lodge, the “Sons of Adam”, plays an important role.
The “Sons of Adam” are led by a charismatic seducer who claims he was thrown out of the Garden of Eden and is now seeking the key to return – in that puzzle, the somewhat naïve Atticus is an important piece.
Assisting the lodge is enigmatic femme fatale, Christina Braithwhite (played by Abbey Lee) who will become a powerful enemy for Atticus and the fiery Leti to cross swords with. The interplay between these characters is a delight. The acting overall is solid with highlights being Smollett-Bell and Williams.
The series is not afraid to be controversial and cross boundaries, including those of forbidden love. We were unresistingly drawn in by the experimental, playful and unconventional style.
Green (Underground), who is also writer for the show, has brought to life an arresting, visually gorgeous universe, where the colourful 1950s collide with a more contemporary fantasy world. She spices up this audacious fare with catchy music, delicious rhythms and the whole exudes sensuality and steamy sex.
Green has been inspired by many film classics and genres. A touch of Indiana Jones and National Treasure, a soupçon of Poltergeist (classic haunted house with dark basement…), as well as a dash of Stranger Things, accompanied by very charming characters, gritty/witty lines and a technically well-made and complete production.
Each episode is a distinct chapter in itself, all with a solid thematic unity. Unfortunately, not all episodes feel equally relevant to the narrative.
The series recreates the rocking and rolling, pastel-coloured fifties excellently. The props have been meticulously chosen down to the smallest detail and the music, cars, food, clothes and people hark back to a bygone era.
That said, Lovecraft Country is absolutely not a glorification of the “Land of the Free” of 65 years ago. The “race question”, and America’s somewhat shameful handling of it, constantly permeates the plot – without seeming forced or artificially placed.
Not for everyone
We would argue that Misha Green has succeeded in the “impossible” task of “popularising” a gory, splatter-filled fantasy horror. That said, we definitely don’t think Lovecraft will be to everyone’s taste.
Unless you like being served severed limbs, blood-spurting arteries, shapeshifting and “liquefying” skin that flows from bloodied and mutilated bodies. Ghouls lurk behind every bush and corpses in varying stages of decomposition invade your basement living room.
If you can look “beyond” the severed arms and all the rest, you’ll discover a sharply entertaining series, set in an interesting historical context with fascinating characters, excitement and drama. 5 stars.
This review is based on the first 5 (of 10) episodes. Lovecraft Country can be streamed from 16 August on HBO with a new episode released every Monday.