The premiere of HBO’s new sci-fi period drama, Lovecraft Country, adds a disturbing new dimension to the phrase “sundown town.”
The term traditionally has referred to all-white communities where Blacks are not safe — and in many cases, outright banned — after dark. Lovecraft Country‘s protagonist, Atticus Freeman (played by When We Rise‘s Jonathan Majors) drives through several of them in the HBO drama’s first episode, enduring inhumane taunts and outright attempts on his life in the process.
But the final spot Atticus visits turns out to have an extra level of horror: It’s a sundown town where many-eyed beasts attack anyone who happens to be in the woods after dusk.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. The hour starts with Atticus on a bus to Chicago; he and an older Black woman sit in the back, their white fellow travelers sit up front. When the bus breaks down, the whites get ferried to the next town, but Atticus and the woman have to walk. Along the way, we learn that he’s a military vet, he likes science-fiction novels, and he’s going home to look for his dad. “He’s gone missing,” he says.
Atticus eventually arrives at the apartment where his Uncle George (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story‘s Courtney B. Vance), Aunt Hippolyta (Quantico‘s Aunjanue Ellis) and cousin Diana (newcomer Jada Harris) live. George runs an auto shop and is the editor of the Safe Negro Travel guide, a Green Book-type reference directing Black travelers to establishments where they’ll be welcome and safe. At the garage, fellow sci-fi lover George says he’s not worried about his brother Montrose, Atticus’ father, who’s been missing two weeks. But Atticus is: He’s received a cryptic letter in which his pop says he’s tracked down Atticus’ deceased mom’s lineage, a subject with which Montrose has long been obsessed.
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“The past is a living thing,” the letter says, stating that Atticus has “a secret legacy, a birthright that’s been kept from you.” Atticus also is worried that his father seems to reference “Arkham,” a fictional Massachusetts town that shows up in stories by sci-fi/horror author H.P. Lovecraft — an author Montrose loathes, thanks to Lovecraft’s blatant racism. But George points out that he’s reading the handwriting wrong: Montrose mentioned “Ardham,” not “Arkham.” The men later learn that Montrose left with a white man in a silver sedan; they make plans to leave for Ardham, Mass., the next day.
They’re joined on the trip by Letitia Lewis (Underground‘s Jurnee Smollett), a family friend around Atticus’ age who’s recently returned to town. She’s heading to Springfield, Mass., to see her brother; George thinks the brother, a local reporter, will be able to help them with a little background on Ardham… mainly because the place doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
After running into some terrible whites at a gas station who make ape noises at Atticus and Leti, and passing town-limit signs that flat-out state “N—ers, don’t let the sun set on you here, understand?,” the trio stop at a diner George has heard good things about. But it’s been renamed, and there’s a distinctly hostile vibe when he, Atticus and Leti walk in.
While Leti is in the ladies’ room and the nervous waiter is in the back, Atticus realizes that everything in the place has been whitewashed — just like the White House after it was burned during the War of 1812. So the establishment previously there was the Black-friendly one George had heard of… and you get the picture. And if you don’t, Leti comes running out of the bathroom, screaming that they’ve got to go NOW.
Atticus, George and Leti manage to get in the car just as a truck and a fire engine come screaming down the street. The men in the truck have guns and start shooting at them. Atticus shoots back with Montrose’s gun, which he’d taken from his dad’s place in Chicago. It’s not looking great, especially when Atticus notices a silver sedan speeding toward them, as well. But at the last minute, the silver car runs interference for the Chicagoans. The truck o’ racists doesn’t hit the sedan so much as hit some kind of invisible forcefield around it, and Leti speeds away while everyone tries to figure out what the heck happened. Meanwhile, a fancy blonde woman steps out of the silver car and stares down the road after them.
At Leti’s brother’s house, the trio doesn’t say anything about the weird circumstances that saved their lives. But don’t worry: There are even weirder circumstances ahead. As it turns out, Ardham is in the middle of nowhere. It was founded by a bunch of witchhunters. And the people there really don’t like outsiders. Oh, and the sheriff of the county it’s in is a raging racist.
After a very loud fight with her brother (over money and the fact that she didn’t come home for their mother’s funeral), Leti decides to continue on the trip with George and Atticus rather than stay in Springfield. They get lost on a road in the woods while looking for the turnoff for Ardham, and while they’re standing by the car and looking for a path, the aforementioned sheriff pulls up behind them and informs them they’re in a sundown county.
“It’s not sundown yet,” Atticus says, which is true, but it will be in seven minutes. And after the sheriff burns a few minutes humiliating Atticus, there’s a slow-mo chase out of town that involves the sheriff ramming George’s car from behind a couple of times. But they can’t speed away! Because he’ll arrest them for that, then! With Atticus behind the wheel, they make it over the county line with seconds to spare… then run into some of the sheriff’s men, who’ve set up a roadblock.
The cops march them into the woods and question them about a rash of burglaries, and it’s clear the officers want to kill Atticus & Co. By now it’s full dark, and there’s a weird sound in the woods about two seconds before something attacks the sheriff, shearing one of his arms clean off.
Everyone is covered in blood, and there are more monsters nearby, so Atticus and Leti run. The beasts circling are reptilian, huge, vicious and hungry: They eat at least one of the sheriff’s men. Eventually, George reunites with Leti and Atticus in the cabin where they’ve found shelter with the (still super racist and terrible) sheriff. George theorizes that the creatures didn’t attack him because they are afraid of the flashlight he was holding, so if the humans can survive until sunrise, they’ll be safe. But the sheriff won’t let Atticus go for the car and its very powerful headlights, so Leti goes instead.
That means she misses the moment that the sheriff, who you’ll recall was bitten by the monsters, turns into one himself. Leti makes it back just in time to light some flares and drive the mutants back a bit, but then a high-pitched, whistle-like sound pierces the night, and all of the monsters leave.
The next morning, a bloody and bedraggled Atticus, Leti and George walk to Ardham, arriving at a mammoth estate with a silver sedan in the driveway. A blonde man with blue eyes opens the door, calling Atticus by name and saying they’ve been expecting him. “Welcome home,” he says pleasantly.
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