Jan's LOVECRAFT COUNTRY – PILOT EPISODE REVIEW (Better late than never!)
LOVECRAFT COUNTRY couldn’t be more relevant as we’re nearing the end of this terrible year 2020: It’s a social conscious genre show that tackles influences by infamously racist literary horror icon H.P. Lovecraft and tells a tale of black heros during the days of the Jim Crow 1950s – just months after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and way too many others sparked the biggest BLM protests yet, even way beyond U.S. borders!
So, as a critical Lovecraft fan I was naturally curious to see how the show would deal with these issues. What would it make of its Lovecraft influence, and what points would it attempt to make other than the obvious „there was and is racism“ statement?
Disclaimer: While being familiar with most of Lovecraft’s work, I haven’t read Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel which the show is actually based on and I barely remember anything from the first trailer. I was good with going in blind and finding out what it’s all about.
LOVECRAFT COUNTRY tells the story of Atticus (Jonathan Majors), a black US soldier who in the 1950s comes home from the Korean war to find his father missing. But, in true Lovecraft fashion, dad left a hastily scribbled note, hinting at something extraordinary he claims to have found out about their family heritage. On his quest to find his father and learn more about the note, he is joined by his well-read uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) and his tough childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) – and it doesn’t take long until they run into the worst the US of A had to offer for folks of color in Jim Crow’s 1950…
If that doesn’t sound promising, I don’t know what does.
My expectations were high but why wouldn’t they be? In 2019, HBO’s WATCHMEN demonstrated how to combine pulpy genre & razor-sharp, challenging social observation – especially in the way it dealt with the Tulsa massacre and its traumatic ramifications throughout the next generations (especially in episodes 1 and 6). I was also a huge fan of producer Jordan Peele’s first two socially conscious horror movies GET OUT and US.
So, what could possibly go wrong? A bunch of things, it turns out. This is a very rough first episode. The opening sequence, showing Atticus dreaming about his frontline experience in Korea, immediately reminded me of WATCHMEN’s Tulsa opening – until it completely jumped the shark barely a minute in as soon as the dream turns surreal.
For a moment there we‘re bombarded with extremely unpolished CGI imagery that reminded me of something I had wished to forget - the ghastly, cyclopean and entirely non-euclidean aesthetics of READY PLAYER ONE - rather than immersing me into the show’s world. And we instantly get an appearance by an especially goofy Cthulhu who is then slashed in half by a baseball bat... the fuck? (If you wanna see a truly glorious take on Cthulhu, go for William Eubank’s pretty good UNDERWATER.) Speaking in aesthetic terms, watching the opening felt like unexpectedly getting a bucket of cold water emptied out over my head. This is basically a cartoon and the only point is to show: Our protagonist has a lively imagination. I don’t care how many sci-fi and horror things are referenced in the scene. There would've been a hundred better ways to demonstrate this without resorting to this ridiculous CGI-panorama LOLfest. Get your shit together, LC!
We jump forward to Atticus taking the bus back home and running into the first racist assholes, eying him with menace. He also chats with a nice black lady. And rather than getting its story started, the show decides to stop cold for some good old discourse: Two characters discussing whether you can still read and enjoy Edgar Rice Burrough’s „A Princess Of Mars“ as a black person. The reason for the debate being: The book’s protagonist John Carter starts out as a Confederate soldier (something which the Disney movie certainly didn’t want to deal with in any depth whatsoever). Ex-Confed, claims Atticus. „You don’t get to put an Ex in front of Confed“ says the woman. That may be right, confirms Atticus, but you still can enjoy the awe-inducing wonders of the cosmic side of that story.
Hey, just like what the show itself is trying to do with the Lovecraft influence. So the first scene was „Cthulhu is such a goofy punk LOL!“. The second scene goes straight into more metatext about the problem of engaging with literature from racist authors. Ok, what now? Will the show be able to put down its sledgehammer, or go for another swing?
When Atticus arrives at his home town, we’re introduced to Chicago with Muddy Waters‘ „Just Make Love To You“ playing, opening of course with the line „I don’t want you to be no slave“. Jesus. The way this show hits us over the head with its themes is barely anymore subtle than CAPTAIN MARVEL with its No Doubt needledrop.
And the metatext continues when Atticus and George meet up in George’s book store. George is writing „Safe Negro Travelling Guides“ – something the characters could talk about some more because 1) it’s an interesting historic detail and 2) this ist he scene where Atticus decides he has to go find his missing father, so the Safeguide stuff should be of great importance to him. Instead, Atticus picks up an actual H.P. Lovecraft volume from a shelf and starts reminding the audience that Lovecraft was an absolute racist scumbag by referring to a particularly horrifying Lovecraft „poem“ titled „On the Creation of Niggers“. Yes, everyone with a brain and a quantum of reading comprehension knows that Lovecraft was racist. But why does this show keep metatexting rather than focus on making its points through gripping drama, like Jordan Peele’s movies and WATCHMEN did from the get go.
But so far the central mystery – the disappearance of Atticus‘ dad – doesn’t have an urgency or even specifity to it. He left a scrambled note about some strange family heritage. That’s it. Doesn't mean much in the context of this episode. Unless you know about Lovecraft’s obsession with tainted ancestry, which was rooted in his own family history. Long story short: both parents went mad and died in mental asylums, then the family estate and wealth turned to ruin, leaving a young Lovecraft afraid of both his genes and his perceived social downfall – which he then projected onto genepool- and culture-ruining „foreigners“. This is expressed in one of his most prominent tropes: A protagonist at the end of a long, mysteriously tainted family line with mad ancestors galore, learning about a terrible family secret and taking it to the grave with him. This trope can be found early for example in Lovecraft‘s short story „Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn“ and it came to full fruition in the novella „Shadow Over Innsmouth“. Fort he show it seems lazy though to just rely on your audience's maybe-familiarity with Lovecraftian tropes while setting up your story.
After 30 long minutes the episode finally picks up the pace, with an intense escape and chase sequence, and an even more haunting „sundown“ sequence, where a white supremacist asshole sheriff warns our roadtrippers that they’ll be hunted down after dark as „vagabonds“. If that gripping scene had been the episode’s opening, it would have been off to a great start - at least in the same ballpark as that Tulsa scene from WATCHMEN.
Good, heartfelt character building moments are there too. It seems like the episode is heading in the right direction now. But no, they had to go for a full-on B-movie monster battle fort he finale. Jesus, why? Why would you show off your monsters just like that straight away? Take some time, build up the threat and intrigue. Play some hide and seek with us. No horror movie or show ever got better by flashing its cards too quickly.
Also, despite having a bunch of vaguely Lovecraftian extra eyes, these bulky creatures look more like mutant dogs from the FALLOUT franchise rather than anything resembling a Lovecraftian creature. Why are they just running through the woods at night like wild animals? Wouldn’t the entire damn state be up in arms and out in the woods, trying to hunt down this group of feral monsters laying havoc to the land? Maybe the show will later explain how the monsters have just recently appeared? Then the finale gets even more B-movie trope-y, once a bitten cop turns into another one of these slightly vampiric creature things - within mere seconds. What is this, RESIDENT EVIL or effing THE STRAIN? It’s cheap, visually worn out thrills that I didn’t expect from this show.
Especially after Atticus even straight up references the Shoggoths from Lovecraft's stories once they first hear strange sounds in the woods. In one of Lovecraft's best stories „At the Mountains of Madness“ these monsters are only learned about through frightening tales of the ancient past of earth, pieced together from strange hieroglyphs. The story ends with the protagonist & his sidekick escaping the Mountains of Madness by helicopter after they realized „something“ was chasing them – probably a Shoggoth. They manage to fly away, the sidekick looks back one last time… and immedeatly goes mad. Neither the protagonist nor we ever learn what exactly he saw. „AtMoM“ is a brilliantly crafted slow-build horror tale. So by referencing the Shoggoths and then throwing us into cheap B-movie-monster action, the show shoots itself in the foot.
For all the show’s talk about Lovecraft, it seems entirely undecided how exactly to deal with its Lovecraft influences, ranging from lame CGI-Cthulhu in the opening to the discursive scenes and then to rote monster action that entirely misses the mark of Lovecraftian horror.
I expected something as razor-sharp and well-built as HBO's WATCHMEN or CHERNOBYL or TRUE DETECTIVE S1. The pilot episode of LOVECRAFT COUNTRY wasn't that. Let's see whether this show is only relevant because it depicts the rotten soul of white America trying to uphold a status quo which benefits only its white population (which automatically makes it relevant in political terms), or whether it also has a great horror story in store for us, with some Lovecraftian influences as well as thematics expressed through drama. There’s plenty good ones out there, from THE TERROR S1 to HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.
Fingers crossed for better episodes, since I still WANT to like the show.