The opening episode of the new horror fantasy series Lovecraft Country is a slow build, but you won’t want to stop watching.
You said the hero was a Confederate officer. / Ex-Confederate. / He fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that.
The world into which the new horror fantasy series Lovecraft Country arrives is vastly different from the one in which it was developed. Production on the ten-part HBO series began way back in 2018, but its release in the summer of 2020 comes in the wake of a succession of global crises. The long-overdue racial reckoning at play across the US and elsewhere will likely afford the series with increased viewership and critical attention, but if the first episode is anything to go by, Lovecraft Country would have been received extremely favourably regardless, such is the quality of the production.
Developed by Misha Green in conjunction with both Jordan Peele’s and J.J. Abrams’ production companies, Lovecraft Country adapts the 2016 Matt Ruff novel of the same name for HBO. The adaptation fully embraces the novel’s central conceit of juxtaposing H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror with the prejudices of racially segregated America in the 1950s, although only hints of this other-worldliness are seen in Sundown, which is more concerned with laying down character groundwork and tone.
Although the infamously xenophobic Lovecraft does not appear within the story – he died in 1937 – the writer’s presence – not to mention the impact of his views which bled through into the weird fiction he wrote – is keenly felt, as our protagonists Atticus Freeman, his childhood friend Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis and his uncle George attempt to navigate the prejudices of the writer’s native New England – Lovecraft’s country – while battling creatures from the writer’s imagination.
Lovecraftian fantasy during the opening dream sequence and a night-time chase through the forest at the episode’s climax may be brought to life with august directorial flair, but it is the plight of Atticus, Leti and George in searching for the former’s missing father that seizes our attention. The trio treks across a landscape infested not only with fantastical nightmare creatures but also the omnipresent spectre of institutionalised inequality. The Blackness of Atticus and his friends and family is ubiquitous and proves either cause for solidarity within Black communities, or an excuse for white America – including white police – to use in protest against those same communities.
There is a taut emotional core to the story, which rests squarely on the shoulders of its central characters. Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett and Courtney B Vance are instantly likeable in their roles: Atticus, a Korean War veteran, has a flavour of naiveté but also a robust conviction; Leti, a photographer with often fractious family dynamics, is smart, sharp and cannot be pinned down; and Uncle George, travel guide maker and avid fiction reader, embodies the warm and wise uncle figure nicely. The trio’s rapport is instantly evident, and viewers should take to them with little hesitation.
These rich relationships are joyous and affirming, as are scenes set in Chicago’s Black neighbourhoods, where youth play in the streets and people gather to sing and dance at block parties in the evening. Yann Demange’s direction frames these sequences with confidence and charm, while Misha Green’s writing always hits the mark. (An early conversation between Atticus and a Black woman riding at the back of a segregated bus demarcates the show’s intent within the first five minutes.) It is when Atticus and co. embark on their journey and encroach upon the perceived privileges of white America that the sinister threat presented by the latter rears its ugly head.
Sundown is a slow build, taking time to set up the story before getting to the monsters – almost an hour has passed by the time they appear – but you won’t want to look away at any point in the fear that our three leads will be unfairly accused or run into trouble. This is helped not insignificantly by the immaculate costuming and meticulous set design – itself no doubt boosted by a generous HBO budget.
The Lovecraft Country pilot is a by turns engrossing and sickening exploration of horror-infused social comment where, no matter how terrifying the creatures get, white people are ultimately the real villains. Considering the resounding critical success this twisted horror-fantasy has received prior to release, future instalments of Lovecraft Country, released across the coming nine weeks, look very promising indeed.
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