'Lovecraft Country' Is the Must-See New HBO Series Exploring US Race Relations Through Horror
In other words, it’s a typical Jordan Peele project — and it’s typically excellent.
September 03, 2020
Usually surrounded by trees and nestled into a remote, almost-hidden patch of forest, a secluded cabin in the woods is a familiar on-screen setting. When a group of people step inside, unpleasant events tend to follow, as the horror genre taught viewers long before there was a movie specifically called The Cabin in the Woods. And, in the very first episode of new HBO series Lovecraft Country, this exact scenario plays out — with returned soldier Atticus 'Tic' Freeman (Da 5 Bloods' Jonathan Majors), his uncle George (Project Power's Courtney B Vance) and his friend Leti Lewis ((Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)'s Jurnee Smollett). During a cross-country trip across America, the trio soon find themselves holed up in a rustic hut and fighting for their lives; however they're not just stuck in the kind of stock-standard unsettling scenario that audiences have seen several times over.
Ravenous, towering, swift-moving beasts are definitely on Tic, George and Leti's trail, as Lovecraft Country makes creepily and compellingly plain. Also lurking outside: a team of racist police officers who pulled them over purely because of the colour of their skin, and had equally brutal plans before things took a turn into supernatural territory. The message here is obvious, showing both the paranormal and actual monsters the series' three central characters are forced to face. Of course, sometimes the most effective way to make a statement is to take the straightforward route — even if nothing about this textured and layered show can ever be classed as simple.
If following the above train of thought has you thinking about Get Out or Us, two recent stellar films that also explored US race relations through a horror lens, that's hardly surprising. Lovecraft Country joins them on Jordan Peele's growing resume, after all. Whether he's co-writing and starring in sketch comedies, directing those two exceptional movies, producing BlacKkKlansman, reviving a science-fiction classic with The Twilight Zone or co-writing the upcoming new Candyman flick, the actor and filmmaker has amassed an impressive body of work that continually interrogates the reality faced by Black Americans. And, in terms of examining the insidious and ever-present horrors that have been a part of the US for far too long — including in the 50s, in the time of the Jim Crow racial segregation laws, when the ten-episode first season of Lovecraft Country is set — Peele's latest project is as powerful as anything else he's ever made.
As based on Matt Ruff's 2016 novel of the same name, executive produced by Peele with Lost and Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker's JJ Abrams, and overseen by showrunner and writer Misha Green (Underground), Lovecraft Country benefits from a smart and engaging overarching premise — one that's extremely well-executed from the get-go, too. Tic has come back to Chicago from Florida, where he has been living since returning from his Korean War service, to search for his suddenly missing dad Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams, The Wire). That quest leads to a road trip into the US midwest, which also doubles as research to add African American-friendly places to the Green Book-style guide that George publishes. As for Leti, she's tagging along for the ride, en route to see her brother and sort out her own family problems.
From teenagers spitting slurs at service stations to murderous white mobs chasing them out of small towns, Tic, George and Leti are treated abysmally from the moment they leave home. To call their encounters unwelcoming, discriminatory and hostile is accurate, but also underplays the heartbreak they endure. Indeed, when the show's titular elements complicate their path — with the series named for famed real-life sci-fi and horror writer HP Lovecraft, and travelling to a part of the country where he found inspiration for his tales — Lovecraft Country has already purposefully unnerved viewers with real-life terrors. From there, not only oversized creatures but also secret occult societies and haunted mansions await in the first three episodes alone, all while the series constantly and probingly conveys the experiences of black Americans.
Impressive special effects help bring the otherworldly side of Lovecraft Country to life, but its other big drawcard — other than its concept, mastery of genre, potent message, excellent cast, and how commandingly and movingly it hits every target it aims for — is its detail. The lavishly made program couldn't look more meticulous in recreating the past, or feel more authentic at the same time. Every painstaking aspect of each set and scene is crucial not just in evoking the era, but in anchoring the wild journey its central characters traverse. This is a big, fantastical, pulpy horror series but, at every single instant, it's also grounded in recognisable experiences and actual emotions — and it never lets the audience forget it for a second.
The first three episodes of Lovecraft Country are available to stream via Binge, with new episodes added weekly on Mondays.
Top image: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO.