Lovecraft Country review: HBO scores again with its history horror show

HBO found a brilliant way to reexamine the United States’ terrifying history of racial injustice and politics through the lens of a superhero story with Watchmen, the 2019 series that was one of the network’s most-watched (and most-discussed) projects of the year and earned 26 Primetime Emmy Award nominations to certify its success.

It was an impressive feat of genre-bending storytelling, and less than a year later, HBO could very well repeat that success with Lovecraft Country, which swaps superheroes for the supernatural in its exploration of how racial violence and injustice inform both the nation’s history and Americans’ daily existence to this day.

HBO

And much like Watchmen, despite plenty of previews and promotional material released ahead of Lovecraft Country‘s premiere, HBO’s latest series feels like nothing you expect — and nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Digital Trends received an early look at the first five episodes of Lovecraft Country, which premieres August 16 on HBO and HBO Max, and can offer the following, spoiler-free review of the series up to that point.

Horror and history collide

Ever since the Lovecraft Country series was first announced by HBO in 2017, there has been plenty of curiosity about the form the show will take. The series is based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, but HBO has kept many details about the project’s blend of supernatural horror and real-world American history a closely guarded secret.

That mystery is, in itself, part of the series’ appeal — and anyone drawn to the show based on those themes will likely be happy they avoided learning too much about it in advance. Lovecraft Country is at its best when it’s surprising you, wrapping its audience in the all-too-real terror experienced by Black people in the U.S. during the 1950s, only to cap it off with the sudden appearance of an eldritch horror ripped from the works of the story’s namesake, novelist H.P. Lovecraft.

The supernatural elements of Lovecraft Country are simply the exclamation points punctuating a far more insidious tale of prejudice and privilege.

To her immense credit, head writer and showrunner Misha Green expertly balances the frightening realities of racial injustice in the Jim Crow Era with the story’s fantastic elements, making the former often as scary as the latter. The supernatural elements of Lovecraft Country are simply the exclamation points punctuating a far more insidious tale of prejudice and privilege, and Green — along with the show’s talented cast — does a masterful job of never letting the unreal feel scarier than the reality faced by an entire generation of Americans.

HBO

For those on the fence about Lovecraft Country, however, it’s worth noting that the series leans heavily into both its supernatural horror and historical elements over the first five episodes. If your interest in the series favors one element more than the other, you’ll find plenty of entertainment — and education — in how the show balances these two themes.

A different kind of scary

If it hasn’t been made clear by this point, Lovecraft Country isn’t your typical horror story — and that applies to the characters, too.

In the series’ primary roles, Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors portray Letitia “Leti” Lewis and Atticus Freeman, respectively, childhood friends from Chicago’s historically Black South Side. After serving in World War II, Atticus returns to his former home on a mission to find his estranged father, who disappeared while investigating a mystery from his family’s past. One thing leads to another and Atticus, Leti, and Atticus’ kind uncle, George Freeman (played by Courtney B. Vance), embark on a journey to find the missing Montrose Freeman (played by The Wire standout Michael Kenneth Williams).

That dark, damaged tone permeates the series’ characters and their experiences.

That initial journey sets the tone for Lovecraft Country as the group encounters one threat after another posed by the increasingly segregated regions they travel through. In fact, by the time they do encounter something supernatural, the audience has watched them deal with so much evil of the all-too-human variety that the arrival of something inhuman almost comes as a relief — something the show’s talented cast conveys in ways both subtle and brutally clear.

HBO

There are no scream queens or stumbling victims to be found among the show’s Black characters, who convey — both in their words and their actions — a sense that mortal danger is something they’re heartbreakingly accustomed to in daily life. Every character in the series is wrapped in the deeply rooted trauma that one can only assume is part and parcel of life as a Black person during that era in American history, and that makes the story being told feel very different from typical horror fare.

That dark, damaged tone permeates the series’ characters and their experiences, and speaks volumes to the importance Green and the rest of the show’s creative team and cast place on rooting Lovecraft Country in reality, even when more spectacular elements threaten to pull it off course.

Starting big

Speaking of spectacular elements, HBO doesn’t waste any time in giving the Lovecraft Country audience a taste of how wild it’s willing to get with the series.

Where the aforementioned Watchmen opened with a dramatic, terrifying re-creation of the Tulsa Race Massacre — regarded as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history — the opening scene in Lovecraft Country merges the reality of WWII trench warfare with an increasingly nightmarish fantasy that sets the tone for everything to come in the series. As far as introductions go, it’s a memorable one, and the sort of sequence that’s likely to be played back over and over again and become the subject of countless conversations.

The opening scene in Lovecraft Country feels even more impressive after watching the season’s first few episodes, as it really does give you a taste of what’s to come — both in how wonderfully it blends history and horror, and the amazing heights of spectacle the show is capable of reaching.

A mystery machine

The first five episodes of Lovecraft Country cover a lot of ground both historically and in unfolding the layered story the series wants to tell. While some episodes feel like discrete elements, much of the season’s first half is engaged in advancing a singular, overarching narrative thread that has Atticus, Leti, and the show’s supporting cast dealing with secret societies, hidden treasures, and powerful magics rooted in ancient (and in some cases, biblical) bloodlines.

It’s a lot of story to juggle, and balancing these narrative threads does get a bit messy at times.

It’s a lot of story to juggle, and balancing these narrative threads does get a bit messy at times — but again, much like Watchmen, sifting through those storylines and attempting to figure out where they’re headed is part of the appeal of Lovecraft Country. It’s a formula that works well with the right creative team and cast, and Lovecraft Country is well-staffed in both departments.

HBO

With five more episodes to go in Lovecraft Country, there’s still plenty of story to tell, and how the series wraps up some of those mysteries will be a major factor in how it’s ultimately regarded by audiences and critics.

Leave too many plot threads hanging, and Lovecraft Country could easily collapse under the weight of its ambition. If it finishes strong though, the series might ultimately measure up to the best of HBO’s original projects to date — which is no small feat, given the network’s knack for producing some of television history’s most memorable cultural touchstones.

Lovecraft Country has managed to make its story feel terrifyingly important over half a season by throwing its characters into one scary predicament (both fictional and factual) after another. Here’s hoping the second half sticks the landing.

The first episode of Lovecraft Country will premiere August 16 on HBO and HBO Max.

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