Show has ‘scariest TV scene in ages’
Lovecraft Country is a show about the agony and ecstasy of the horror genre.
Borrowing its name from one of the great authors of pulp fiction H.P. Lovecraft, the series has just hit streaming on Binge.
But while in most fantasy tales, a hero transcends everyday life to battle supernatural monsters more horrifying than anything real or familiar, in Lovecraft Country, the creepy vampiric creatures our characters face are nothing compared to the omnipresent danger poses by systemic racism.
Case in point: The "Sundown County" chase scene in Episode 1 is infinitely more terrifying than the subsequent battle against the mythical shoggoths. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
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That short sequence of a racist cop ensnaring heroes Atticus (Jonathan Majors), Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), and George (Courtney B. Vance) in a sadistically slow race against the setting sun will haunt me far longer than a gory showdown against Lovecraftian monsters. As well it should.
Lovecraft Country, made by HBO, was created by Underground co-creator Misha Green and based on the Matt Ruff novel of the same name.
The series follows Korean War vet and pulp fiction bibliophile Atticus "Tic" Freeman as he journeys across 1950s America in a quest to find his missing father Montrose (Michael K. Williams).
Joining him are his kind and erudite Uncle George and childhood friend Letitia "Leti" Lewis.
Their travels eventually bring them to central Massachusetts on the hunt for an obscure town called Ardham. However, while searching through the woods for a road that will lead them there, they are stopped by a villainous sheriff named Eustace Hunt (Jamie Harris).
"Any of y'all know what a sundown town is?" Hunt asks, shotgun in hand.
"Yes sir, we do," George carefully replies.
"Well this is a sundown county," Hunt says. "If I had found you pissing in my woods after dark it would have been my sworn duty to hang every single one of you from them trees."
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Understanding that sundown towns were places across America - not just in the south - where whites could murder African-American people after dark with total impunity, Atticus points out that's not sundown yet.
They only have a matter of minutes, though, before they are at the mercy of Hunt. Our heroes have to race to the county line, all while knowing the clock is ticking and they can't go a smidgen over the speed limit, or else fall into Hunt's hands.
It is an excruciating sequence that director Yann Demange cranks up the horror on through a rhythmically tense series of shots, cuts and thrumming music.
It's also pulled almost verbatim from Matt Ruff's book. However, Lovecraft Country showrunner Misha Green makes one genius change from the book: She puts our heroes through it.
In Ruff's Lovecraft Country, the tale of a white cop hounding a wayward black traveller close to nightfall is a story that George shares with Atticus early on in Chapter 1.
The events happen to a friend of George's named Victor Franklin.
When Victor crosses the county line, he is able to hit the gas pedal and drive to safety.
Victor's is a cautionary tale, but one with a happy ending.
By putting Atticus, Leti and George in this position, Green makes the horror of the tale all the more immediate. We've spent the whole first episode of Lovecraft Country falling in love with these three characters. Watching them deal with this nightmare in real, achingly slow time, makes the scenario all the more visceral.
In fact, this whole episode puts the viewer into the shoes of an African-American person trying to survive life in Jim Crow America.
From the very beginning of the first episode, we see that the cross-country travels that contemporary white Americans take for granted represented perilous journeys for African-Americans in the not-so-distant past.
It is a cinematic exploration of the pain, trauma and cruelty inflicted on real people in real life.
The other thing that's so unsettling about this sequence is how it doesn't just illustrate one of the most terrible chapters in American history - the proliferation of sundown towns - but it encapsulates how absurdly evil those policies were.
This is not a real race. Atticus is unable to drive as fast as he could since he's literally handicapped by the speed limit. It's not even as though our heroes are doing anything legally wrong. They are just black in a town ruled by racism.
And the whole point of racism is to disenfranchise a person of their humanity, such as the moment when Hunt makes Atticus refer to himself as the n-word in front of his friend and family.
It's a sadistically dehumanising move that stings all the more because the audience knows by now that Atticus carries an aura of real nobility. (It's also a line that Green adds to the show that's not in the book. It hammers home the outrage of this whole situation.)
The sundown county chase scene is a chilling reminder of the real horrors faced by African-Americans.
It's so effective that it outshines the Lovecraft Country premiere's other big horror set piece.
After crossing the county line, Atticus, George and Leti's relief turns to panic as they see a blockade of cop cars waiting for them.
Upon being led to the woods to be executed, our heroes' salvation comes from an unlikely place: An attack of gruesome vampiric monsters Atticus calls "shoggoths". In the chaos of the creatures' attack, our heroes are able to fight their way to safety.
The horror elements in the shoggoth attack are campy, bloody and underpinned by the conventions of horror. Our heroes? Safe, only after outsmarting the enemy. Our villains? Murdered quickly, often thanks to their selfish foolishness.
While this latter sequence is heart-pounding, it's not nearly as haunting as the sundown chase preceding it.
The grisly jump scares of shoggoths hopping into frame and chomping off limbs in Lovecraft Country is fun. We know Lovecraft's monsters aren't real. The sundown chase, though, is utterly excruciating to watch. That's because sundown towns, lynching, and the systemic racism that buttressed these sins are all too real. And we haven't even begun to reckon with them.
This story originally appeared on Decider and has been reproduced here with permission
Originally published as Show has 'scariest TV scene in ages'