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‘Lovecraft Country’: ’50s travelers take on bigots, B-movie beasts in wildly creative HBO series

The screen-popping show blends racial drama with gory horror, taking on a style that’s ever-changing but always watchable.

Tic (Jonathan Majors, center) is joined by his uncle (Courtney B. Vance) and his friend (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) as he hits the road in search of his father on “Lovecraft Country.”
HBO

When I tell you the HBO fantasy drama series “Lovecraft Country” is a bat-bleep crazy and wildly creative mashup of mid-20th century racial drama and B-movie horror gore, I mean that on a couple of levels.

First, it truly is bat-bleep crazy, as the meticulously crafted realism depicting life in the America of the 1950s co-exists with a supernatural world of grotesque monsters, a house of horrors, shape-shifting entities, magic potions, secret spells, a creepy cult, sorcery, exorcisms and some of the goriest spectacles this side of, well, drive-in horror movies based on H.P. Lovecraft stories.

Also, it’s literally bat-bleep crazy on occasion, as baseball bats are the weapon of choice in many a battle, most notably in the series-opening sequence, in which a traditional battlefield sequence is interrupted by an invasion of UFOs — and a bat-wielding Jackie Robinson slugs the gooey guts of out of a hideous, tentacled monster. Then there’s one of my favorite scenes in the series, when a young Black woman who has bought a house on the North Side of Chicago finds a burning cross on her front lawn, and proceeds to take a baseball bat and smash the hell out of the cars belonging to her racist neighbors.

And so it goes with this uneven and sometimes cheesy but screen-popping and original 10-part series, which debuts Sunday night. (I’ve seen the first five episodes). “Lovecraft Country” is a not-so-subtle allegory about racial and gender oppression in the 1950s, and yes the modern-day parallels are many. Even as the heroes battle monsters that lurk in the woods or in the ground below, the scariest and most formidable monsters of all might be the diner manager who won’t serve anyone of color, the cops who will arrest you for being black, the neighbors who harass you because you dared to move into a white neighborhood, the entire towns that will gladly see you strung up if you’re not gone by sundown. Even though the story is set mainly in Chicago and the Midwest and Massachusetts and not the Deep South, Jim Crow looms large and ugly.

Created by Misha Green (“Underground,” “Sons of Anarchy”), executive produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams and based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, “Lovecraft Country” stars Jonathan Majors as Atticus “Tic” Freeman, a Korean War veteran who spent some time working in Florida but has come home to the South Side after learning his father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), has gone missing. The production design on “Lovecraft Country” is magnificent, from the obligatory shiny period-piece cars to the storefronts to the jazz clubs that explode with music and dancing and life at night. (“Lovecraft Country” was shot in the Illinois towns of Elburn and LaSalle, as well as on the West Side, in Lakeview and at Chicago’s Cinespace Studios and in Georgia.)

Like his beloved Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his lifelong friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollet), Tic is a big fan of pulp horror and in particular the work of H.P. Lovecraft, even though they acknowledge Lovecraft was a hardcore racist. Spurred on by a map Montrose left behind, Tic, Uncle George and Letitia take a road trip to the Massachusetts town of Ardham in search of answers. (Uncle George chronicles their journey for the next edition of his “Safe Negro Travel Guide.”) Along the way, they have harrowing encounters with racist law enforcement and ignorant bigots before arriving at the enormous mansion of the Braithwhite family, an Aryan-looking bunch who are seeking immortality and supernatural powers through a black-magic cult known as the Sons of Adam.

Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) uses an unusual method to get a job at Marshall Field’s on “Lovecraft Country.”
HBO

“Lovecraft Country” revels in stylistic shifts in tone and anachronistic touches, as we hear everything from Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” to the music of Rihanna and Cardi B. to the theme from “The Jeffersons” in scenes set in the mid-1950s.

One episode plays like a cross between “The Goonies” and an Indiana Jones film. Another is straight-up Stephen King horror. In between all the madness and the monsters, there’s a bounty of richly dramatic storylines, from the reveal one major character is living on the down-low to the simmering passion between Tic and Letitia to the journey of Letitia’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku, magnificent), who dreams of working at Marshall Field’s and only gets the chance after she leaps at the opportunity to transform her exterior into that of a white sales manager — which leads to arguably the most gruesome take on the old body-switch theme ever seen.

As great-looking as the sets are, the special effects seem almost deliberately second-rate at times, as if to conjure up that H.P. Lovecraft vibe.

So, too, with the dialogue, in which the obvious is stated, then stated again in case we missed the message the first time.

But this is one of the best casts we’ve seen in any series this year, and each episode is brimming with wicked humor and flights of madness.

And did I mention how great it is when Letitia steps up to the (license) plate and destroys those cars?

“Lovecraft Country” is all over the place, but, wherever it takes us, we’re compelled to keep watching.