Werewolf by Night (PG)
Director: Michael Giacchino
Screenplay: Heather Quinn, Peter Cameron, Gerry Conway
Starring: Harriet Sansom Harris, Kirk R. Thatcher, Eugenie Bondurant
Review: David Stephens
If you discount the likes of non-Marvel Studio films such as Blade, Ghost Rider, and Morbius, the MCU has yet to explore its rich pantheon of monsters and horror-tinged lore that populated its printed pages. Chief amongst these was the great 1970s run of horror comics boosted by a relaxing of the Comics Code and the success of multiple fright flicks. Tomb of Dracula was a funky modern (for the 70s) take on the character, and there was also The Legion of Monsters. One of the most popular characters of this "Legion" was Jack Russell (Stop laughing at the back. Writer Gerry Conway swears that he didn't know it was a dog breed), who was a decent man who turned into a slavering Wolfman by the moon, hence the title Werewolf by Night. And yes… these characters did sometimes team up with or against superheroes like Spider-Man, Moon Knight, and Dr Strange… as mind-boggling as that may seem. As you can imagine, there have been many reboots and updates over the years. And this is just the latest…
Werewolf by Night is called a "Special Presentation", meaning it's too short to be called a movie, and there's only one episode. Running for just 55 minutes, including the usual intros and credits malarkey, it's only streaming on Disney Plus from 7th October onwards. Basically, it's an experiment for the house of mouse's streaming channel and Marvel to see how a horror slant would be received and by using Halloween as an excuse to do it. It opens at the remote mansion of Ulysses Bloodstone, who has just shuffled off this mortal coil. Leader of a cabal of Monster-Hunters who work in the shadows, members of the group have converged together in a hunting ceremony to take possession of the fabled "Bloodstone" itself, which has the power to defeat the creatures of the night. The attendees include a nameless face-painted hunter with over 100 kills allotted to them (played by Gael García Bernal) and prodigal daughter Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly). They are tasked with killing a captured beast to prove themselves. Needless to say… it doesn't go according to plan.
To their very great credit, Marvel Studios haven't just used the spooky season as an excuse to do a half-hearted version of a hairy Hulk with a CGI-ed lycanthrope rampaging through suburbia. Instead, we have a mostly fun and offbeat production that channels the spirit of the great Universal Studios monster movie, making the appearance of other "Monsters" in the MCU very likely. Filmed almost completely in black-&-white, it's a cool stylistic choice that works for the subject matter as homage and for aesthetics. The only colour comes from the pulsating crimson of the Bloodstone and a cheesy Wizard of Oz reference. Perhaps most satisfyingly, it's a 16+ rating on the channel and has such delights as throat-slashing, ear-chomping, and full-on arm-severing, which probably bodes well for the rebooting of Blade at the cinema.
There's a splendid visualisation of Dr Theodore Sallis, which has been teased for some time. But unless you are versed in comic-book lore, you may well be baffled by his appearance, powers, and motivation. Still pretty cool, although it would have been nice to see him done with practical effects instead of CGI. Despite the title, wolfish moments are actually rather brief and occur well into the running time. The first transformation is in silhouette and focuses on the reaction of a cowering character which works brilliantly. Unfortunately, when we get a good look at Mr W. Wolf… it's a little disappointing. He doesn't look quite… right. It was probably an intentional decision to lean towards the Lon Chaney Jr. look and make it a little bit cheesy. But it doesn't stand up to the illustrated form we see in the end credits or the marvellously lean and feral versions from the printed page. It looks like the actor has an all-over afro made out of camel pubes. But that's just a personal opinion.
Bernal is okay, but Donnelly and Harriet Sansom Harris (as cabal matriarch Verussa) steal the show. Donnelly's snarky and disrespectful Elsa is handy with a blade and swears in a manner that only the Brits and Irish can. In comparison, Verussa is a deadpan character with some great punchlines ("Don't be so easy on yourself"). Its lean running time is perhaps a blessing. There's some slow-burn tension, but there are no superfluous backstories, boring amounts of exposition, or blatant scene-setting… except where necessary. Some other MCU productions could learn from that (*cough*Moon Knight*cough*).
All-in-all, it's a pleasant little treat for Halloween and would be a nice little aperitif before watching "proper" genre movies. You'll probably come for Werewolf but stay for Elsa and finish with a wry smile and an appreciation for the artistic choices and the visualisation of "Ted". Beyond that, you can't help feeling that a bit more could have been done with the ideas and set-up. It starts like The Beast Must Die and then ends like a feel-good … well, typical MCU production, really. There's certainly crossover appeal, so give it a try for one of your "31 Nights of Halloween" and see what you think…