‘Lovecraft Country’ cooks up a strange brew of race, history and horror

A strange brew of race, history and horror, “Lovecraft Country” feels like the child of “Get Out” and “Watchmen,” with a pinch of “True Blood” for good measure. The HBO series conjures a pretty intoxicating atmosphere, while proving confounding about what its rules are. The result is well worth watching, but requires patience to see where this gothic road will ultimately lead.

Through five previewed episodes, or half the season, the jury remains out on that last part. Yet the series boasts such a handsome look and impressive cast and creative pedigree –produced by J.J. Abrams and “Get Out’s” Jordan Peele, and adapted from Matt Ruff’s novel by Misha Green (“Underground”) — it earns the benefit of the doubt.

Granted, HBO has an uneven recent history with splashy fantasy-infused exercises. While “Watchmen” soared, “Westworld” creatively flew off the rails. “The Leftovers” finished in an interesting place after indecipherable turns, while “His Dark Materials” is pretty but lifeless. And so it goes.

What defines “Lovecraft Country” and initially sets it apart is the 1950s Jim Crow-era backdrop, filtering issues of racism and inequality through those years. Within that setting, the series keeps changing shapes, starting out as a quest before morphing into different styles, from a haunted-house-type episode to an adventure with almost a “National Treasure” feel to it.

At the center of it all is Atticus (Jonathan Majors), a Korean War veteran who returns home to Chicago looking for his father (“The Wire’s” Michael Kenneth Williams), who has gone missing. Accompanied by childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), the trio embark on a trip through segregated America — a perilous journey in the best of times, but one that turns out to be fraught with supernatural twists.

Atticus, as it turns out, is well-schooled in science fiction, as an avid reader of such artifacts as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels; still, nothing in his fictional pursuits could prepare him for the threats they’ll face.

Deriving its name from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft — an influential literary figure with a problematic legacy — the series is most effective in exploring the racial and societal mores of the time, which includes discrimination toward gays as well as African-Americans. The magic and horror, by contrast, frequently feels just plain weird, although kudos to the special effects team for conjuring some truly hideous imagery.

After the indie film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Majors co-starred in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” and admirably holds center stage here. Smollett’s resourceful character is also no mere damsel in distress, and their relationship evolves through these shared experiences, becoming the heart of a series that takes plenty of detours.

The show cleverly plays with conventions of the genre, while employing more familiar tricks — like the enticing twists that close episodes, designed to pull the audience into the next hour.

That’s half the battle, but as HBO has demonstrated, no assurance of winning the war, especially with a concept this opaque. At least initially, credit “Lovecraft Country” with offering solid incentives to stick around, and a welcome, thought-provoking diversion at a time when it’s harder to, well, get out.

“Lovecraft Country” premieres Aug. 16 at 9 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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