In the dead of night, at a remote mansion tucked far away from prying eyes, a group of men and women convene. They’re appearances are all the more ghastly by the room’s atmospheric lighting; some seem to have not slept or seen sunlight for days. Each person eyes the others warily. Servants come and go. Finally, a person at the center of the room rises and addresses the assembled. There is a mission, completed before the sun rises. Whomever emerges victorious from this contest of wills shall not only have their mettle tested — they’ll reap great rewards. The group disperses, ready to scour the landscape in the wee small hours so they might bring back something worthy for their masters.
But enough about the most recent Marvel Studios visual FX team meeting. Werewolf by Night, the company’s latest project to grace their patron saint’s streaming service, is one of the more baroque, oddball detours to come out of the endless Disney+ content salt mines. Billed as a “special presentation,” this 52-minute one-off rests squarely in the middle ground between feature and TV event series; much like the protagonist played by Gael García Bernal, it’s neither man nor beast but some unholy middle thing. And through the story of Jack Russell, adventurer by day and you-know-what come full moon time, may be connected to an overarching narrative — did you know that Marvel has a “cinematic universe”? — it occupies an intriguing interzone somewhere between unsolicited throwback spin-off and leagues–deep-cut fan service. Welcome to an adaptation of a 1970s horror comic filmed like a 1940s Universal horror movie, made in service of the 21st century’s biggest intellectual-property soap opera.
One of the first titles to establish Marvel’s journey into the macabre during the Me Decade’s early years, writer Gerry Conway and artist Mike Ploog’s pulpy, post-E.C. werewolf series followed a lycanthrope antihero who dabbled in both the superhero world and a peripheral monster-populated landscape (vampires, zombies, swamp creatures, et al.). You assume that the powers that be have something similarly crossover-friendly in mind; no less than Marvel Studios’ grand poobah Kevin Feige has said this special is “quite important to the future of the MCU.” But taken on its own, Werewolf by Night feels less like a franchise detour than a fun day trip into previously untrampled genre territory. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness only flirted with true spookiness in its final third. This aims to be a full-on endorphin rush for horror nerds.
From the moment the black-and-white credits come up (dig that straight-outta-RKO font!), you can tell that director-composer Michael Giacchino, cinematographer Zoe White and the production team are taking their retro duties very seriously. When Bernal’s Russell shows up to an after-hours gathering of monster hunters, he might as well be walking into an old, dark house on a backlot next to sets of a mad scientist’s lab and a morgue. The reason that he’s joined his peers is partially to pay his respects to the late Ulysses Bloodstone, a legendary killer of creatures of the night. It’s also because Bloodstone’s sister, Verusa (Licorice Pizza‘s Harriet Sansom Harris), wants to bequeath the family heirloom — a glowing red gem with extraordinary powers — to a worthy successor. There’s a monster on the property, she informs everyone. Bring me its head, and the “Bloodstone” is yours.
Russell’s reputation as a “dealer of death” precedes him with, we’re told, over a 100 kills to his name. Still, his competition is stiff. There’s someone who could pass as Blade’s younger brother; a dead ringer for Marilyn Manson circa the Mechanical Animals era; a gentleman dressed in the centuries-old garb of a Chinese warrior; a scarred-up Viking type; and Elsa Bloodstone (The Nevers‘ Laura Donnelly), Ulysses’ estranged daughter. Her presence isn’t exactly welcome — “You were always the greatest disappointment of his life,” her aunt coos to her — yet the prodigal/problem child needs closure. She also seems to by a chip off the ol’ block in the ass-kicking department as well, which will come in handy when Russell’s true nature is revealed. It seems he has his own reasons for being at the hunt, which have nothing to do with possessing the Bloodstone….
One of the perks of Disney+ being used as an extra outlet for Marvel’s metastasizing mega-narrative has been the way the company has let the streaming service double as something like an experimental lab. You wanna do an adventure series involving mental illness, mercenaries and ancient Egyptology? Go for it. Or an exploration of trauma that doubles as a vintage sitcom tribute? Here’s your check. Or how about a wacky legal comedy, but your version of Ally McBeal is seven feet tall and green? We have a slot open in August. It’s not like the corporate stakes and the budgets still aren’t high, but it’s allowed the ransacking of 60 years of legacy I.P. to venture into dustier, darker, WTF-weirder corners of Marvel’s cross-current storytelling. Making a genre-specific special for seasonal “Shocktober” programming isn’t unique. Filming it in black-and-white, playing up the horror aspects (a slaughter splatters blood on the camera; heads will literally roll) and pulling out all the stops for a niche subcategory even veteran comic readers might not remember? Not even promises of “trust us, this will totally matter to the new Phase’s big to-do is” can make this seem like a no-brainer idea. It’s still a gamble.
Whether Werewolf by Night does end up being a key part of Whatever Comes Next in the MCU Part 17, or ties into the upcoming Blade reboot (given he was another character who was introduced via those ’70s horror comics, it’s highly likely), or is simply just a stylish time killer in between big-name event series and blockbusters, we’re glad they rolled the dice. Giacchino is better known for his musical work — that moody, creepy score for The Batman is his — but as a director, he’s got a great sense of how to sustain a mood without losing momentum. The monochrome cinematography and shadows-and-fog visuals are a beautiful homage to Universal horror’s heyday; we’d swear a climactic, garish splash of color works as a brief tip of the hat to Hammer as well. For every bit of dialogue seemingly lifted from Disney’s Haunted House ride (“Good luck, I’ll be…rotting for you!”), there’s a sequence like Russell’s transformation, presented as flickering shadows on a wall, that’s positively poetic. As for cameos, there’s an unexpected one that comes off better than you’d think it would. Let’s just say that those who know fear burn at his touch.
Of course, should you need every MCU entry to stick to some predetermined superhero script, you may find yourself getting impatient at best while watching Bernal get hirsute and homicidal. At worst, you’ll be searching your cabinets for spare silver bullets until the inevitable last-act brawl-a-thon. Unlike the comics, Werewolf isn’t attempting to appeal to an underserved demographic or take advantage of the “new freedoms” that hit the Comics Code way back in the day. You can find horror everywhere. You can also find superhero stories everywhere now as well, however, at the expense of a lot of other types of movies/TV shows/entertainment/content, which is what makes this offshoot all the more welcome. If it’s indeed a Marvel world and we’re all just living in it for better or worse, we could use more creative distractions from mondo world-building like this. Just drop them more than once every full moon, please.