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Impressions: ‘Lovecraft Country’ casts a promising, horrifying shadow over America’s past

Impressions: ‘Lovecraft Country’ casts a promising, horrifying shadow over America’s past

Impressions: ‘Lovecraft Country’ casts a promising, horrifying shadow over America’s past
September 11
13:35 2020

Content Warning: Spoilers ahead

“Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.”

Lovecraft Country” couldn’t have come at a better or worse time — the COVID-19 pandemic still has everyone locked down, the Black Lives Matter protests continue in the face of violent aggression and many Americans are being forced to reckon with the past, present and future of their country.

Created by Misha Green of “Underground” fame, produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams and based on Matt Ruff‘s novel, “Lovecraft Country” seeks to pay homage to famous horror pioneer H.P. Lovecraft while rebuking his very racist work through an exploration of horrors of the past.

Set in 1955, “Lovecraft Country” follows Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) and Uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) as they set out to find Tic’s missing father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams). As they follow his trail, the trio uncovers a dark secret tied to Tic’s bloodline, secretive cults and the terror that comes with living in a country that hates them for being Black.

To start, audiences won’t follow characters that don’t keep their attention, which “Lovecraft Country” keeps. Majors is highly watchable as Tic, a nerdy Korean War vet scarred by both the war and his own upbringing, AND brings a very sympathetic and sensitive quality to this traumatized war vet. Tic’s own thoughts about Lovecraft’s racist past and his interactions with his friends and family are easily the highlights, contrasting the scares with thoughtful meditations on his own complex feelings towards pulp horror and his time in Korea.

Opposite Majors is Smollett’s Leti, who brings a raw fire and charisma to the screen. A rebellious woman who’s on the rocks with her family, Leti’s arc follows her as she attempts to reestablish ties and reexamine her relationship with the Black community in Chicago. Leti’s arc might be even more engaging than Tic’s, and watching her develop is a treat.

As for the supporting cast, Vance is lovable as Uncle George, a wise man with a love for pulp fiction whose mission is to map out safe spots for Black Americans to travel through. Williams also intrigues as the guilt-ridden yet volatile Montrose, who clearly knows more than he’s letting on. Finally, Abbey Lee entices as Christina, an ominous woman with ties to the unknown whose hidden motives and Aryan appearance make her an unnerving, yet fascinating presence.

In the first four episodes, Green and her writers set up each individual episode as something of a situation anthology — the pilot is a countryside road trip horror, “Whitey on the Moon” is a creepy cult story, “Holy Ghost” is a haunted house chiller and “A History of Violence” is a throwback to retro adventure movies. Each episode further develops threads of character development and plot while keeping the tension and mystery fresh.

As for the cosmic horror, it’s sadly in short supply. Being a visual medium, “Lovecraft Country” goes more for traditional monsters and atmospheric horror over indescribable horrors from beyond time and space. For this, the show mixes palpable tension with practical effects and serviceable CGI. While the monsters can be somewhat obvious, they do have cool designs and the scares themselves aren’t overly reliant on loud noises, knowing when to release tension and pay off on setting the scene before creeping out the audience.

Standout moments include the climax of the pilot where the characters and some racist cops are holed up in a cabin to hide from some multi-eyed monsters. While the protagonists work to escape alive, the cops are unable to overcome their own prejudices and distrust, resulting in an incredibly tight standoff as doom tries to break down their door. Episode three also includes a pretty spellbinding exorcism after a half-hour of quiet build-up and glimpses at mutilated ghosts.

However, not all is entirely well in “Lovecraft Country.”

To delve deeper, the show’s exploration of systemic and institutional racism runs a little inert. While Jim Crow laws are alluded to, just about every white extra is aggressively racist and there are little Easter eggs referencing Black history, there’s no real dive into the deeper implications of how segregation affected their lives on a more intimate level. As of now, the show is more straight horror than social horror, with little biting social commentary.

Green also uses anachronistic recordings and music alongside more period-appropriate tunes and while they don’t disrupt the tunes (the speeches even help underline the deeper context of everything our heroes go through), they do clash a little with the aesthetic.

As Lovecraft tributes goes, the show is more a pastiche of popular horror entertainment than Lovecraft’s stories — for example, the pilot is more akin to “Dracula” and “Holy Ghost” is more “Poltergeist” than “Re-Animator.” While the entire crew does a good job with these episodes, those looking for a show with deeper Lovecraftian DNA may be disappointed, especially given the show’s name and Green outright stating she wants to “reclaim” his stories for a new generation.

While they may not toy with deeper themes of existence as much as they should, Green and her crew have still created what has so far been a pretty good, potentially even great, horror show. With solid scares and an intriguing plot-line, “Lovecraft Country” is a smart homage with a solid first half and a promising future.

Stay tuned for the full season review for a final rating.

Featured image: Courtesy HBO

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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