Scott D. Pierce: Wildly entertaining ‘Lovecraft Country’ is terrifying — both the monsters and the racists

(Photo courtesy of Eli Joshua Ade/HBO) Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett star in “Lovecraft Country.”

HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” is chock-full of terrifying monsters and unrepentant racists — and the racists are scarier. And as fantastical as the fiction is, the truth of this 10-episode series strikes at the heart of America.

Based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff and set in the 1950s, “Lovecraft Country” (Sunday, 7 p.m., HBO) follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a sci-fi/horror fan and Korean War veteran who’s traveling home to Chicago before setting out to search for his missing father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams).

Atticus heads across segregated America with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and a former childhood friend, Leti (Jurnee Smollet), who’s grown up to be a spitfire. They try to mind their own business, but run up against gun-toting racists at seemingly every turn.

And that’s before they run into multi-eyed, vicious monsters — shoggoths — that are right out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. (And, yes, Lovecraft’s stories were undeniably racist.)

“I think that the monsters are a metaphor for the racism that’s kind of always been through America and even globally,” said showrunner Misha Green, whose fellow executive producers include J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. “And I think that, for me, [the sci-fi/horror] genre works best when it is the metaphor on top of the real-life emotions that you explore in the real-life problems.”

“There are some very dark passages in the piece,” Majors said. “The things we experience in the story are things that happen in day-to-day life. It’s in the DNA of the African American experience.”

It’s the characters that make “Lovecraft Country” work so well. You’ll quickly become invested in them and their world — and it doesn’t hurt that the sets, costumes and period feel of the series are dazzling.

Green said the 10 episodes were shot on 162 sets over eight months. “That’s bananas,” she said, adding that “Lovecraft Country” employed the same visual effects and makeup houses that “make ‘Star Wars’ movies. … There was no limit to my imagination except my imagination.

“When I pitched to HBO, I said, ‘This is going to be big and epic and crazy.‘”

And that’s an accurate description of “Lovecraft Country.”

(Courtesy of HBO) "Lovecraft Country" premieres Sunday on HBO.

There are obvious comparisons to HBO’s “Watchmen,” which tackled racism while spinning an amazing, engaging yarn. And, like that series, “Lovecraft Country” is wildly entertaining — and just plain wild — so despite the fact that the narrative is far from subtle, it somehow doesn’t feel heavy-handed.

Maybe that’s because of the over-the-top horror elements. Maybe because it’s set in the 1950s, which gives present-day viewers some distance, even though all you have to do is read or watch the news to know that things haven’t changed so much.

“Our heroes essentially are going on a quest to bring down white supremacy,” said Smollett, “and we are still on that quest today in 2020 as Black Americans. Because racism is such a demonic spirit, it’s something that we are still fighting off.”

It’s worth pointing out that this is not an indictment of the South.

“It’s all in the north,” Green said, which “really struck” her when she was reading the book. “Immediately, you think of Jim Crow South … but Jim Crow was everywhere at the time. And it was really important that it was clear for us that the show was taking place in the north and understand that this was a problem all across America.”

The quest to find Montrose fills the first two episodes, and then “Lovecraft Country” settles down to become more of a monster-of-the-week horror/drama/comedy. (Yes, it’s very funny in spots.) Although “settle down” doesn’t actually doesn’t describe the series at all — it’s high-energy throughout the five episodes screened for critics, with murderous ghosts, magic, police brutality, secrets and massive amounts of blood and gore.

It’s almost an anthology, with subsequent episodes taking on a different story and a different feel. But evil and horror continue to stalk the characters at every turn — both the monsters and the racists.

“And that is sometimes even more of a threat because it’s unexpected … and it affects you on every single level,” Smollett said. “With a monster, you’ve just got to outrun it.”

“With a monster, it’s a direct physical threat,” Majors agreed. “They want to eat you. Yeah, run faster.”