★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
HBO’s big budget Jordan Peele produced series is off to a ripping start. It is both timeless and timely, and the HBO pedigree shines through. Great acting, great characters, stunning visuals, a promising plot, and some very intense and gory moments mark the first entry to the show.
Cosmic Horror, and particularly Lovecraftian Horror can be a bit of a tricky exercise. The source material is dense, often excessively wordy, and intentionally cryptic. H.P. Lovecraft told tales of eldritch horrors, of unfathomable elder beings, and vast dreamscapes and madness. Not the easiest thing to convey on screen. H.P. Lovecraft was also, not to put too fine a point on it, an abject racist.
As we discuss in our Podcast Episode 105 “Cosmic Horror” I have submitted that I have been a huge fan of Lovecraft’s work, despite all the problematic elements. I played the role playing game Call of Cthulhu with my collegiate friends. It was mysterious and awesome… as in awe-inspiring. Normal people pitted against inexplicable evil! So, it was with great anticipation that I heard of Jordan Peele’s involvement with HBO’s newest genre showcase, and saw the title I figured that something special was brewing. How do you craft the African American experience in the era of Jim Crow, and merge it with the decidedly dodgy trappings of Lovecraftian horror? Color me curious.
This is based upon the book by the same name, by Matt Ruff. Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is a young black soldier, returning home to Chicago from the Korean War on a mission to find out what has become of his missing father. Atticus and his father had a strained relationship, but when he receives a mysterious letter suggesting that there is a legacy inheritance in of all places, Ardham, Massachusetts (notably close to Lovecraft’s fictional town Arkham… which they address in the script) and he has just vanished, Atticus is intrigued and on a mission to find him. Atticus was a bookish kid as a youth, and he retains his imagination and love of fantasy/sci fi, and is a particularly big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
He enlists the support of his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) who writes a travelogue for black travelers that tells people where the safe places for African American people to eat, sleep, and rest. It is a reminder in 1950’s America, even in the North, this is the era of Jim Crow, and racial prejudice wasn’t solely the domain of Dixie. This is pre-Voting Rights Act and before the Civil Rights movement was in full flower. Uncle George has had his fare share of violent encounters, but he does this so that others don’t have to share the same indignity. A noble cause, indeed.
Joining Atticus and George Freeman is Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), a childhood friend of Atticus, who is now a sassy and brash young woman. The three of them hit the road, in a fabulous woody Packard Station Sedan following Uncle George’s guide, and finding some unwanted trouble along the way. For a horror show with monsters in it, it becomes clear that the supernatural beasties are a metaphor for the monstrous way that racist whites treated black citizens.
Do we get monstrous beasties? OH YES! The opening dream sequence involves none other than Great Cthulhu who appears to Atticus in a dream (a classic Lovecraft trope) but the Great Old One is dispatched by none other than Jackie Robinson! Funny how dreams work. You don’t get more of the monsters until our protagonists find themselves where their destination should be, but things aren’t what they seem. Again, the initial danger comes in the form of a local racist sheriff, but then the shoggoths arrive, with a body full of pale blinking eyes and lots of teeth. The monster sequences are good and gory, and reminding you that after all this drama, yes, this is a horror show.
One visit to the IMDB page for Lovecraft Country will tell you that HBO has provided Game of Thrones level production quality, and the results are fantastic. It is a triumphant debut on so many levels. The acting is wonderful, and because this is a 10 episode series, it is taking its time developing the characters. The plot feels like something right out of my Call of Cthulhu games, with the mystery and the letter MacGuffin.
More importantly, the timing of this show could not be better. As our country wrestles with a racial reckoning, genre productions like this can illustrate the context in which we live in quite vividly. The producers didn’t know it at the time, but this show feels like a prescient gift. This has the potential to be the COVID water cooler talk show for the year… if people still gathered around water coolers.
Of course, HBO needed to know that a big audience could be attracted to genre stories about the black experience. Get Out, Black Panther, and Hidden Figures all were probably encouraging signs for the studio to green-light this show. The quality of the show should bring in big numbers. It alone makes it worth it to have an HBO subscription. It’s wonderful.