Spoilers below for Lovecraft Country's series premiere, so be sure to watch before reading!
Lovecraft Country kicked off its first season on HBO with a monster-filled premiere that introduced audiences to Jonathan Majors' Atticus Freeman and the search for his father, along with his friend Leti (Jurnee Smollet) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance). The dramatic horror series is set in the 1950s, where deadly racial tensions ran rampant across the United States, and those tensions inspired one of the most intense car chases I've ever seen, despite also being the slowest car chase I've ever seen.
The premiere's title, "Sundown," is in direct reference to "sundown towns," areas where white residents used any means necessary to keep other races out of town after dark. (Although it's not like they were too friendly during the day, either.) Atticus, Leti and George were first accosted by an intolerant cop and his foreboding warnings about crossing the county line before the sun set, and they remained his target even after they drove away. The cop's intentions of sabotaging their exit, combined with the trio's fear, made it the most harrowing car chase that never exceeded 25 mph.
During a recent Lovecraft Country press junket, I asked star Jonathan Majors if he could talk about bringing that agonizingly engaging car chase to life. Here's what he had to say:
Man, that was... Even when I read the book, I thought, 'This is crazy.' But to me it was like this is this is the perfect scene and the most dopest blend of psychological drama and psychological horror and physical horror. Where it's like, the things that are going through your mind when you're moving that slow – it's like you're moving [slowly], but you're going bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. You know? Gripping the steering wheel, I mean, that's real sweat in the car. Mind you, it was hot. But [it was also] the amount of tension that was pulsing through us. A lot of that scene is improv. We were just barking at each other the entire time. And Atticus is trying not to bark, but when he barks, he barks. So yeah, it was incredible. I think it's a one-off; I've not seen that in cinema or in television before. It's a bit of a mindfuck, but pretty, pretty awesome.
Lovecraft Country is showrunner Misha Green's adaptation of Matt Ruff's 2016 novel, which shined a light on several real-world racial horrors often swept under history's rug, such as sundown towns/counties and the 1921 Tulsa massacre that became far more publicized in the premiere of HBO's Watchmen adaptation in 2019. As hectic as that opening is, Lovecraft's car chase manages to capsulize that same abject terror without any explosions or gunshots. Just two cars driving down the highway at non-blazing speeds.
During our interview with Misha Green, who also co-created the Jurnee Smollet-starring Underground, she brought up that sweat-inducing car chase while generally speaking about mixing real-world historical horrors into the more supernatural storytelling within Lovecraft Country. In her words:
Yes, I mean, for me, I've always been a huge history fan. Underground was all steeped in history. I think the history point that really stuck out to me from the novel was the 'sundown town' right away. I definitely I wanted to pick this kind of slow chase, like just the idea that you can't go over the speed limit, but you got to get out of this town and away from these people. The idea that there were signs all over the U.S., like you can look at these pictures. I'm looking at these signs in a history book, they're real – 'Don't let the sunset on you here.' But it feels like something out of a horror movie. Like, you can't make this stuff up. If I had made it up, people would be like, 'Oh, okay, we get it. That's a horror trope.' So I feel like that history – the history that is just as horrific as the monsters we made up – all of that has been buried. I feel like the fact that you say 'Jim Crow America,' and people say, 'Oh, in the South?' And I'm like, 'Nope, this all takes place in the north,' and they're like, 'But how can that be?' It's because Jim Crow was everywhere. It's the same as slavery. It wasn't just in the south, but that's what we've been taught.
Thankfully, everything we've been taught about H.P. Lovecraft's various gods and monsters not being real is still very much in line with reality. At least for now. I guess there are still quite a few months left for 2020 to make it happen.
On a more serious note, part of my genre fanaticism comes from knowing that 99% of the situations I watch in horror movies and TV shows couldn't possibly ever happen to me or anyone else. However, the terror that I felt while watching Lovecraft Country's car chase, as well as plenty of other moments throughout the season, came from knowing that this shit can, did and does happen to other people simply based on the color of their skin. This obviously isn't new information in and of itself, but it's still a rarely utilized storytelling avenue for horror, and the world is all the better for Misha Green (and executive producer Jordan Peele) bringing it to the forefront in Lovecraft Country.