Monster hunters compete for an artefact of power in Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf by Night.
Despite ample opportunity, Marvel has never properly delved into horror, the closest being the chaotic vignettes of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the “Zombies!” episode of What If…? It’s an unfairly neglected genre, so having the biggest franchise in history experiment with it would go a long way to granting it some legitimacy. If you have to properly start somewhere, then Werewolf by Night is about good as you could get.
After the death of legendary monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone, a cabal of his contemporaries gather to compete for his family’s eponymous gem of power by entering a maze and hunting both a creature and each other. Also participating are his estranged daughter Elsa, (Laura Donnelly) and Jack, (Gael García Bernal) a mysterious man with motives of his own to join the pursuit. It’s a simple story but still manages to take several twists and turns, each evenly spaced and advancing things further into its world of supernatural terror.
The aesthetic is decidedly retro, projecting the atmosphere of Universal Horror. Not just from being filmed in black and white (aside from the scarlet blaze of the Bloodstone lens-flaring from the screen), but the set construction, décor, high contrast lighting, music, and grainy film stock all also heavily invoke the classics of the 1930s and ‘40s, even down to cigarette burns in the corner of the image. If it wasn’t for an etched mural depicting the original lineup of the Avengers, the story could easily have taken place at any point in the last century. Although the artificiality of the sets is clear, they are designed in such a way that they still feel part of an inhabited world, simplicity dressed as opulence, while an unspoken history is suggested by tradition and ritual like the hunt kickoff being heralded by blasts from a flaming tuba and a chanted pledge of zealotry.
Billed as a television special, it barely clocks 50 minutes before it’s all over, technically making it the highest-profile short film ever made. With such a truncated running time there isn’t much space for character development, so instead of delving into the backstories of its leads the plot is instead styled as a mere chapter in each of their respective journeys, it just happening to be the point at which they intersect. Personal experiences are suggested with a sentence, sometimes even just a word, while silent reactions reveal hidden emotions.
Although Elsa abandoned the life of a hunter, it’s clear she still inherited some of her family’s powers, being durable enough to shrug off having her head slammed several times against the corner of a stone wall and possessing an acrobatic agility that rivals Natasha Romanov. Her adaptability sees her able to skilfully wield whatever weapons she happens across and find a way out of tight spots, while exchanges with her hilariously overacting pantomime villain stepmother (Harriet Sansom Harris) make it clear why she left the family in the first place.
Werewolf by Night
Man or thing?
Of course, this is not titled The Prodigal Bloodstone Returns, so there’s someone else requiring focus, and not just from his friendship with Man-Thing and his mission to save him. The revelation of Jack being a werewolf is portrayed as a shock for the characters, but for the audience, it’s instead seen as something inevitable. We knew a lycanthrope was coming from the very title and even without advanced knowledge those unfamiliar with these kinds of tales will identify him in a moment, further presenting him as an existing character. His regret for when his urges overwhelm him is clear without ever having to see it, the theme of living continually haunted by a part of yourself over which you have no control being common to multiple superheroes. The look of his werewolf form is intentionally reminiscent of Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man, while the raw bestial strength contrasts against Elsa’s speed and skill, preventing fights from becoming repetitive.
In keeping with the horror, there is more intense violence than is typical for Marvel. There is even actually allowed to be some blood, the greyscale filtering it into a more palatable shade for age ratings, like with Thor: Love and Thunder having its deity mooks bleed golden ichor rather than crimson blood. One shot even sees the camera catch an arterial spray, the drip of viscous gore slowly obscuring the violent fury unleashed in front of it. Contrasting this there are several welcome moments of humour, such as Elsa’s snarky dismissals, a Latin inscription translating to “Give up the ghost,” Ulysses’ animatronic corpse looking and acting like a hybrid of Zoltan and the Crypt Keeper or the incongruity of a seven-foot shambling mound of a swamp monster being named Ted.
Aside from the CGI that realises Man-Thing’s presence and Jack’s transformation not properly meshing with the production’s retro stylings, the only real issue is the length of the special. While it tells the story it wants to with deft efficiency, there could so very easily have been so much more of it to enjoy. Hopefully, if the reaction remains positive enough Marvel will commission more specials and more horror, both of which would be more than welcome.
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