H. P. Lovecraft has had a bit of a resurgence lately. Not that the influence of his work has ever really been dormant in popular culture, but between recent explorations and debates on his work and his legacy of, let’s call it what it is, hate, the author has been again thrown into the spotlight. The latest chapter in this legacy comes from HBO in the form of Lovecraft Country.
HBO’s Lovecraft Country is adapted from the 2016 novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. The show is produced by Misha Green, J. J. Abrams, and Jordan Peele. The show airs Sunday nights on HBO and is available on HBO Max.
As for the show itself, let’s get weird with it, shall we? The reviews will be recaps will be filled with spoilers, but you can look at the review section without getting spoiled.
The story so far…
“Sundown” opens with a dream sequence filled with a number of pulp references as Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) is riding the bus home. When the bus breaks down we see that we are in 1950s America, one of the last gasps of the Jim Crow era. Welcome to Lovecraft Country.
Atticus, returned from the Korean War is coming home to Chicago to find his father who has gone missing in “Lovecraft country.” Atticus recruits his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance, American Crime Story) and childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett, Birds of Prey) for a road trip to the town of Ardham; a name that is spun off from a familiar location in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, a figure who existed in the setting of the show and may not be writing fiction after all.
The road trip, under the guise of a research trip for a safe travel guide for black folks, published by George, immediately hits some snags. The show shows life across the midwest for the black community, juxtaposing their experiences with white Americana. The trio attempts to dine at an establishment, but make a shocking discovery and find themselves chased out of town by gun-toting racists. They are saved by a mysterious blonde-haired woman in a Rolls-Royce who stops the truck full of racists with what seems to be some power, flipping the truck and allowing Atticus and company to escape.
After some time learning what little there is to know about Ardham, Leti has a blow up with her brother who hosts the trio. They drive off the next morning, searching for the road to Arkham. Instead that find a racist sheriff and end up in the slowest, most tension-filled car chase to a county line ever.
Unfortunately, trapped by a roadblock of racist police, the trio are held at gunpoint in the woods and things go from bad to worse when mysterious multi-eyed creatures tear through four of the officers. The sheriff, de-armed by one of the beasts, transforms into one of the creatures inside a cabin where Atticus, George and an unfortunate deputy are hiding. The creatures, weak to light, are eventually fended off by Leti who brings the trio’s car to the cabin, flooding the space with light.
The next morning, Atticus and his band find the road into Ardham and arrive at a mansion. Atticus moves to knock on the door but it opens before he sets his hand on it. They meet a blond-haired man who seems to have been expecting their arrival.
How it worked out…
The show is a stylish period piece that features some great performances, generally strong visuals, and some moments of genuine tension. It’s a fun ride through and through and enough of one that I want to experience the next episodes. As a pilot, “Sundown” largely does its job by setting up the core leads, a long term conflict, and just a hint at the weirdness to come. It also presents the kind of alien horror people expect when they think Lovecraft, but I am not sure if it does it all that well.
My biggest issue with the show is that it has two monsters and really only makes one scary, though it is hard not to make that monster scary. The show is at its absolute best when it deals with the looming threat of living while black in 1950s America. The pilot is absolutely at its best and most horrifying here. The moments of terror inflicted on black Americans is far more intense and affecting than a five-minute CGI-fueled attack of the Shoggoths. The presence of white paint and a loose tile chills far more effectively than a special-effects reel.
Despite my misgivings with the action-approach, it is still a lot of fun. Lovecraft would have hated it, for obvious reasons, but perhaps less obviously, it turns his ideas into the very sort of two-fisted pulp adventures he routinely criticized in his letters. But that’s fine, honestly. Is the idea of a wolf-like Shoggoth any sillier than the gelatinous mass of a thousand eyes as described in his own work? It’s a suitable introduction to the themes and aesthetics. A sort of big-budget sketch of the weirdness he pioneered. It gets people interested and diversifies the weird genre and hopefully continues to bring new voices into the fold when it comes to Lovecraftian themes.
But ultimately some fans and purists are going to be let down about the Abramsification of what should be an utterly hopeless and relentless experience. I would not say that I am let down, but I do want to one day see a high budget adaptation of the world of Shoggoths and Yith without the need for guns-a-blazin’.
But you know what? I’ll take the action-adventure spin on the themes and enjoy them just fine.
Lovecraft Country, “Sundown,” rates in at four Cthulhus. (4 / 5)
In each review, I have a section where I include some miscellaneous thoughts that don’t fit in the structure of the review but I feel are worth mentioning.
I just really liked the name, okay?
- The road trip monologue you heard comes from James Baldwin’s 1965 debate against William Buckley, Jr. This show will be heavily tied to the Jim Crow era. George’s guide book, for example, is clearly based on The Green Book. Also, look up Sundown towns if you are unfamiliar with the concept and prepare to feel sick to your stomach.
- A fair number of Lovecraft references in the premiere, as to be expected. The Outsider and Others makes an appearance. We also see what seems to be Cthulhu in Atticus’ dream. We of course have the Shoggoths. Vampires, another creature Lovecraft dabbled in, also get referenced, but George’s reference is specific to Dracula. Oh, and a refence to Herbert West as well.
- A lot of other great references as well to other pulp literature. Take, for example, the Martian princess in the dream sequence, who seems to be played by Jamie Chung. We also have tripods from War of the Worlds, and what seems to be a Roman Centurian in the battlefield. I’d be hesitant to include The Count of Monte Cristo as pulp work, but the presense of Alexandre Dumas is definitely a welcome literary element. Can’t forget Jackie Robinson, either.
- Who was Atticus speaking to on the phone all the way in Korea?
- I feel I should also explain my “qualifications” when it comes to my criticism of how the show tackles Lovecraft. I earned my M.A. writing about H. P. Lovecraft and writing an interactive fiction story that revolves around decolonizing Lovecraftian themes. I am currently in production of a mobile game version of that interactive fiction piece. You spend a couple years studying the guy (horribly racist warts and all) and his writing you end up sort of insufferable, like me.
- My review is already on the long-side, so things I want to address will be saved for later reviews. I’ll just throw out that Courtney B. Vance is a great actor and elevates the performances around him.
Please join us next week for another recap and review of HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Please let us know your thoughts on the show or this review in the comments.
Movies n TV
The Beach House, a Film Review
The Beach House (2019) is a body horror film directed and written by Jeffrey A. Brown starring Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, and Jake Weber.
The Beach House (2020) is a body horror film directed and written by Jeffrey A. Brown. This film stars Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, and Maryann Nagel. As of this review, this film is only available on Shudder.
Desperate to rekindle their strained love, Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) escape to a beach getaway. They soon learn to find that family friends of Randall’s father, Mitch (Jake Weber), and Jane (Maryann Nagel), also had a similar idea. After getting used to each other, a mysterious fog engulfs the town. Unfortunately, they realize too late the danger they find themselves in.
What I Like
Body horror gets under my skin, and The Beach House certainly lives up to the standard. There’s something magical about creatures terraforming your body to their preferred environment, turning humans into nothing more than conscious prisoners in their own flesh. While I wouldn’t consider this film the most traumatic or unsettling example, it utilizes wonderfully grotesque scenes.
Aside from the body horror, the film drops a few Cosmic Horror–or Lovecraftian–vibes that go together perfectly. Another favored genre of mine, this combination ensures the odds are overwhelmingly against our human leads.
Beyond the grotesque, visuals might not overwhelm but certainly succeed in their goal. Several scenes provide an intentionally tranquil experience that contrasts with the grotesques and improves their effectiveness.
In terms of performance, each actor hits their mark. While some roles require less effort, each contributes to the plot as intended. The standout performance goes to Liana Liberato’s Emily, who acts as co-lead. She simply has the most to work with and lives up to the part.
Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings
As “body horror” should indicate, this film will hit hard for the more squeamish viewer. While horror by nature has some amount of grotesque, body horror brings that grotesque to the next level. While I don’t particularly find The Beach House hitting harder than its competition, it certainly respects its chosen genre.
What I Dislike or Considerations
A few scenic montages may hit or miss depending on your interpretation. While I have my own theories, that speculation goes beyond the scope of this review. Many of these scenes overlap more philosophical conversations and musings that may annoy or add layers. This strategy seems a common practice in Cosmic Horror, which forces characters to rationalize the irrational.
It’s hard for me to understand how secretive or known this event is supposed to be in the film’s world. Individuals know something outside of the town, with evidence implying governmental knowledge. This information creates a contrivance–perhaps, even a plot hole–because the characters had to reach this isolated town without any opposition.
One of the visuals didn’t exactly grab me. While I won’t go into too much detail, an effect looked too visually similar to a common animal that barely survives rain. It’s hard to be threatened by that. It also doesn’t exactly match up with some of the other visuals. Even the creatures that look similar to it still look different enough to provide a more alien assumption.
There are moments when the infected chase our main characters by crawling at them. While the context works, with injured characters helping to sell them, I can’t help but find these scenes amusing as opposed to frightening. Yes, it’s certainly visually different from the plethora of zombies out there, but it’s also less frightening than zombies that leisurely walk to their targets.
The Beach House combines cosmic and body horror to create an uncomfortable film that tests its characters. For those who enjoy these genres, it will certainly entertain you, but I doubt it will frighten you. I imagine the mood to watch it again might strike me, but I’m not entirely certain it will stand the test of time. (3 / 5)
If this movie suits your fancy and you want more, Honeymoon seems an appropriate recommendation.
Movies n TV
Every Secret Thing, a Film Review
Every Secret Thing (2014) is a crime thriller directed by Amy J. Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener, based on Laura Lippman’s novel.
Every Secret Thing (2014) is a crime thriller directed by Amy J. Berg and written by Nicole Holofcener. This R-rated film stars Diane Lane, Danielle Macdonald, Dakota Fanning, and Elizabeth Banks. Based on Laura Lippman’s novel of the same name, the film adaptation is accessible through MAX and DirecTV.
When a little girl goes missing, Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) spirals into an all too familiar tale. As pressure mounts, Alice Manning (Danielle Macdonald) and Ronnie Fuller (Dakota Fanning) become the leading suspects. The strained frenemies unravel under the attention and reminders of their shared past.
What I Like
The film unravels in a non-chronological structure but makes it easy for the viewer to follow. It helps that the age difference clearly divides the younger actors, who change actors. One casting choice resembles their older counterpart, and the acting reflects a strong direction for their shared role.
Unreliable narration remains expertly communicated with scenes that change perspectives depending on whose perspective we view them from. This choice adds a reason to view the film twice, providing extra ambiguity for some of these events.
The camera gets up close and personal to an uncomfortable degree, which almost certainly presses the actors’ performances. This choice places the viewer in the character’s perspective and limits us from others’ perspectives to add extra credence to these biases.
Every Secret Thing provides a spiraling mystery that unravels with several twists and turns. Assuming the novel provided the outline, this film executes these points and keeps a consistently engaging experience throughout the runtime.
Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings
Child abuse and neglect remain the central plot points of Every Secret Thing. Little of this abuse appears in scenes, but there is no escaping the danger children are in throughout the film.
Self-harm and suicide are shown throughout the film (once in the case of suicide) through one specific character. It isn’t glorified or romanticized nor addressed with particular sensitivity. For those sensitive to these subjects, it might be triggering.
Racism, the assumed motive for the bi-racial victims, plays a small role in the film’s narrative. However, character motives remain more complex, but going further spoils some elements. This film decision does create the reality that bi-racial children are the victims of child neglect and abuse in the film with little additional context. It does invite uncomfortable speculation, but speculation it would be.
Sexual assault is another concern for viewers, specifically statutory rape. This issue seems particularly mismanaged, considering the survivor remains an antagonist. One can be both survivor of assault and an antagonist of a film without needing to discredit the assault. While little appears of this issue, and the manipulation angle can indicate a perspective shift, it’s hard to refute how the film wants to represent this attack.
What I Dislike
Loosely tied to the above point, one character seems mentally off and purposely so. This point doesn’t inherently create an issue, but there seems to be a choice to make this character a mastermind. Perhaps this is better addressed in the book, but the execution is far from perfect here.
A newspaper montage reveals essential information which feels oddly misplaced. Practically the entire setup for the film appears through this montage, which creates the necessity to read these headlines in the minimal time given.
As a horror, nothing but the events are haunting. Children being abused or kidnapped always haunts, but the terror of this remains secondary to the mystery. While the mystery is nice, this film won’t particularly scare the seasoned horror fan.
Every Secret Thing unravels a mystery of opportunism, selfishness, and deception. While the movie won’t haunt the viewer, it certainly unravels a mystery that shocks them. The nuanced and deceptive characters add a layer of engagement that creates a unique experience, but I doubt this movie will linger in my mind.
(2.5 / 5)
Movies n TV
Quid Pro Woe
We’ve now reached episode six of Tim Burton’s Wednesday. And after the last episode, this one did not disappoint.
We start with Wednesday attempting to contact Goody Addams. Last episode, if you’ll recall, Morticia explained the difference between a psychic dove and a raven. Since Goody Addams was the last raven psychic in the family line, it’s got to be her that trains Wednesday.
But her seance is a failure, and Wednesday is interrupted by a magazine note shoved under the door. It says to meet someone at a crypt for answers.
When she gets there, it turns out that her friends have put together a surprise birthday party for her. Before she can cut the cake, however, she has a vision.
Goody Addams tells her that she must find a specific gate. After some investigation, Wednesday discovers it’s the gate to the old Gates house.
Wednesday goes to investigate, but she isn’t the only one. She is nearly discovered by Mayor Walker. He is also investigating the Gates family, even though they’re all reported to be dead. He leaves a message for Sheriff Galpin and is almost immediately run over by a car.
This incident is enough to get Wednesday’s town villages revoked. Though this seems like an empty punishment since the whole school is on lockdown. Someone burned Fire Will Rain on their front lawn.
Wednesday isn’t one for believing the rules apply to her. She has it in her head that she’s meant to save Nevermore Academy, probably from whatever descendent of Crackstone who’s still around. So she has no problem lying to Enid and Tyler and convincing them to help her sneak off campus and explore the Gates house further.
This, of course, is an incredibly informative trip. The kids find a hidden altar to Crackstone, as well as the missing body parts from the monster’s victims. They also find evidence that someone’s been staying in the house. Someone who’s staying in what looks like a little girl’s room.
Before they can find anything more, the monster finds them. They barely escape, and go to the sheriff with what they find.
Of course, the house has been cleared out by the time Sheriff Galpin arrives. Furious that his son was almost killed, he tells Wednesday to stay away from him.
Because that always works, right?
Galpin isn’t the only one angry. Enid is fed up with the way Wednesday has been treating her. And so she leaves their room to bunk with someone else, leaving Wednesday alone.
This episode was well done. The discoveries at the house were exciting, and I’m almost sure I know who’s behind the murders at this point. Overall, this was a good ramp-up to the season finale.
Finally, this episode did something I was worried just wasn’t going to happen. And for that alone, it deserves praise.
Wednesday has been incredibly selfish and inconsiderate since the first episode. She’s been rude and demanding towards Thing. She’s ignored her friends’ needs and emotions while insisting they put themselves in danger for her investigation. She has respected no one’s boundaries, even while other people have at least tried to respect hers.
And now, it’s finally come back to bite her. All of the people who have been doing their best to show her kindness and support are finally done with her bullshit.
Yes, this is a good thing! Characters are best when they’re allowed to learn and grow. When they don’t come to us flawless. When they mess up and learn from it. Especially for a show aimed at kids, this is essential.
If you’d asked me at the beginning of the season if this character was going to experience honest character growth, I’d have assured you it would never happen. Much to my surprise, it’s happening. I hope that Wednesday is going to come out of this a better person. With two episodes left in the season, there’s plenty of time for that. (4 / 5)