Culture

Television

Look back in horror: ‘Lovecraft Country’

By Craig Mathieson
The monsters are both supernatural and human in HBO’s recasting of the horror genre

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country. Image: HBO

Books really can change lives in the new HBO series Lovecraft Country, a charged repurposing of the horror genre and the history of American subjugation. This is evidenced not only by the way a vintage paperback can inspire a child to imagine a different world, but also by an ancient occult text that holds the power to kill, and a guidebook for 1950s Black travellers that can literally steer them clear of towns, police departments or even individual businesses whose white stakeholders would do them physical harm. But it’s what use the written word is put to that ultimately matters in Lovecraft Country, and that applies to both the Black characters and the show’s creator, Misha Green, who in adapting Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name has created a landscape where the supernatural illuminates systemic injustices.

With new episodes screening weekly on Foxtel and its new streaming offshoot Binge, Lovecraft Country picks up the baton from HBO’s hit series from late last year, Watchmen. Both shows use fantasy tropes and fantastical texts to upend the traditional parameters of popular culture; they’re insurgent works aiming to conquer the conventional. In Lovecraft Country, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) dreams he’s back on the Korean War battlefield, but now flying saucers, tentacled creatures and Jackie Robinson wielding a baseball bat are among the combatants. When he awakens, he’s at the rear of a segregated bus in the American south, where he can’t sit with white passengers. Which reality is more shocking, the show asks, and what do the worlds we imagine say about the one we live in?

When he arrives in Chicago, Tic discovers that his estranged father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), has disappeared after previously summoning him. The quest to find his father sends the young veteran on a journey of discovery with his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance) and childhood friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett). The monsters they encounter include ravenous creatures such as the shoggoth (H.P. Lovecraft’s imagery is used, and his virulent racism noted), as well as a murderous sheriff intent on lynching the trio come sundown. Meanwhile, an ancient fraternity steeped in magic – and with designs on Tic’s bloodline – offers spells and fresh missions. Crucially, the wilder the action set piece is, the deeper the reflection that follows. “Don’t you ever let them make you question yourself,” George reminds Tic, and he could mean wizards or politicians.

The storytelling has elements of a horror anthology, with different tropes reworked in individual episodes (the third, for instance, tackles a haunted house in a white Chicago neighbourhood that Leti purchases, galvanising a reaction both inside and outside the walls). But the through lines of the show are the committed performances by the cast and the theme of inherited trauma, underlining how a family’s scars can be passed from one generation to the next, and how this ties them together. Whether wary or defiant, Tic and his fellow seekers get by with creativity and guile, with Green unafraid to let some thrills offset the tragedy. The period detail, right down to demeaning billboard advertising, has a vivid sheen that makes the 1950s feel brand new. Lovecraft Country’s ultimate gambit is to connect history’s ills to those of today. “You think you can forget the past, you can’t,” Montrose tells Tic. “The past is a living thing.”

Streaming successes: The Dirty John anthology (Netflix) is inspired by lurid real-life crimes, but the series finds more nuanced meanings in the front-page headlines than their tabloid origins suggest. The first season gave Eric Bana his best role in years, while the new season stars Amanda Peet as the picture-perfect wife and mother whose gilded delusions are shattered when her manipulative husband divorces her. The erotic short stories of Anaïs Nin are the starting point for Little Birds (Stan), an intriguing drama about a fragile American heiress (Juno Temple) finding her feet in 1950s Tangier that subverts the usual glossy template of the colonial melodrama. In Difficult People (SBS on Demand), creator Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner are an acerbic delight as a pair of struggling New York comics who remain amusing and likable despite their unlikeable behaviour. All three seasons of the show, which ran between 2015 and 2017, are now available for those who get a good laugh from bad manners.

Streaming misses: How hungry are streaming services for a pitch with even a hint of viral appeal? In 2013, NBC Sports promoted English football’s Premier League to an American audience through a witty five-minute sketch starring Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso, an American gridiron coach inadvertently hired by a Premier League team. In 2020, Ted Lasso is now a 10-part series on Apple TV+. The fish-out-of-water comedy is very slight, despite the capable Sudeikis returning. The original sketch is all the Ted Lasso you need.

Notable movies: One of the finest Australian features of the previous decade, Acute Misfortune (Stan) is a startling adaptation of writer Erik Jensen’s 2014 posthumous biography of the Archibald Prize-winning artist Adam Cullen. Starring Daniel Henshall as Cullen and Toby Wallace as Jensen, Thomas M. Wright’s film is an unstinting dissection of the complex dynamic between writer and subject. With no Marvel movies currently in cinemas, there should be room for some subversive twists on the superhero genre, but Project Power (Netflix) can’t help retreating to familiar ground. Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play a vigilante and a cop respectively, each trying to track down the source of a drug that gives users a superpower for five minutes. It’s a juicy B-movie concept, but the execution is boilerplate.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country. Image: HBO

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