‘Werewolf By Night’ Review: Marvel’s Fan Gate Remedy Into Horror

‘Werewolf By Night’ Review: Marvel’s Fan Gate Remedy Into Horror

While Disney is currently thriving with the release of their latest spooky sequel, Hocus Pocus 2, and will see the impending release of Hulu’s Hellraiser on the Disney-owned streamer soon, rarely has the company taken a stab (no pun intended) directly at the horror genre. For the most part, Disney — and Marvel, as it continues to loop itself into their theme parks and streaming services — has remained clean of the blood and guts that come with the Halloween season… until now.

With the first Halloween special to hit Disney+, Marvel strays into scary movie territory with Werewolf by Night, featuring the lycanthropic character of the same name as played by Gael García Bernal. A character known for his ties to Moon Knight, Werewolf by Night (better known by his alias, Jack Russell) is a character that hasn’t been touched much in recent years, either in the comics or on-screen. But he’s back now, in a new hour-long adventure directed by famed composer Michael Giacchino.

The series is not just your standard stale Marvel tale masquerading under a layer of black-and-white Photoshop — no, it understands what makes a horror tale, down to the condensed nature that was so popular in the early days of film. Only 52 minutes long, Werewolf by Night takes you through a full night at the Bloodstone Manor, as a handful of monster hunters have gathered to compete for the namesake of the infamous family: a ruby-red gem with supernatural powers, the only piece of color that pervades the grayscale special.

Giacchino draws on the earliest eras of horror for this special, taking audiences all the way back to the 1940s, when Universal had an iron grip on the horror community, and Hammer Films wasn’t too far behind. Werewolf by Night forgoes the straightforward tone of recent Marvel shows in favor of dipping its toes into the mysterious, diving straight into the action without any set-up. Foreboding wraps its way around the audience like the fog snaking around Jack Russell’s (Bernal) ankles as he explores the Bloodstone Manor, and from the first scene, audiences are told to forget their expectations, because superheroes don’t dare step into a world of scares like this one.

The score, unsurprisingly, is evocative of the height of horror cinema in the ‘50s, with Giacchino pulling double duty as both director and composer. It’s part of what makes the special so convincing in its execution, worrying more about an immersive and narratively effective experience more than dropping the Easter eggs that Marvel is typically so fond of. (Though the identity of the monster the hunters are tasked with chasing was a delightful, deep-cut surprise that I won’t spoil.)

Co-writers Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron’s experience with the MCU — having written for Hawkeye and Moon Knight, respectively — is obvious in the show’s humor, but it’s a humor Bernal and co-star Laura Donnelly can carry without feeling like a burden. The jokes are the kind that draws from the inherent campiness of classic horror rather than the MCU’s typical self-referential style — y’know, the kind that feels like a bad stand-up routine gone horribly wrong — and the stars’ chemistry makes up for the rest when things start to slip through the cracks.

Donnelly especially feels like she’s been plucked straight from the pages of an old Hammer screenplay, with the same intrigue and femme fatale nature as someone like Valerie Leon in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, or Susan Denberg in Frankenstein Created Woman. While we know she’s the heiress of a monster-hunting family of madmen (if her stepmother and her father’s literal talking corpse are any indications), we never learn much more, and you almost don’t want to. The mystery of her character drives her dark motivation to take the Bloodstone for herself, and knowing anything more would almost spoil the fun of the whole thing.

Bernal, meanwhile, is a standout no matter what he does, and he slots into Giacchino’s vision like he was always meant for it, imbuing Jack Russell with a kind of life that makes him magnetic to watch even when, ultimately, he has little screentime in his own special. He’s got the charm of a Peter Cushing or a Vincent Price, drawing on the same boisterousness that won him a Golden Globe for Mozart in the Jungle to make Jack immediately memorable. (That really gives a new meaning to “play with the blood,” huh?)

But it’s the moment he transforms that really sells the character, and truly makes me believe that the project cares more about evoking stories of the past than it does about playing Marvel character bingo. (And before you come after me for spoilers: look at the title of the special. Were we really expecting Jack not to transform?) While initially, I had hoped for a terror more like those out of The Howling, Bernal goes full Lon Chaney Jr. for this special, a less canine and more human look that rockets audiences straight back to a time when Abbott and Costello regularly met the undead and Millicent Patrick was queen of the monsters. It’s unexpected, and exactly what this special needed to seal the deal, forgoing yet another false-looking CGI creature for a flesh-and-blood piece of art that terrifies more than any computer graphic ever could.

If you’re a by-the-books Marvel fan, walking into Werewolf by Night will likely confuse you, though that’s the best possible outcome for a one-off special like this. Horror is meant to confuse and disorient, never dumping the answers in your lap but forcing you to interpret the clues yourself, as the inner workings of one’s brain are always more terrifying than anything a screenwriter could put to paper. The special has virtually nothing to do with the MCU that fans have come to know and love, and for someone who hit superhero burnout five years and eleven Marvel movies ago, it’s a welcome change to their formula, if an unsettling one.

WIth this project Marvel has, miraculously, created a gateway drug to hardcore horror for their younger viewers, the same way An American Werewolf in London was for me at the tender age of 13, watching it in broad daylight on my dad’s couch. Werewolf leans into the Hays Code-influenced styles of its predecessors to tell a sufficiently bloody story without actually having to showcase too much blood at all, never revealing enough that you truly feel safe even after you’ve shut your TV off for good.

Some of the more traditional Marvel elements don’t mesh too well with the horror side of things — why does Jack fight like Black Widow when he’s supposed to be a feral monster? — but Giacchino has truly nailed the aesthetic of classic horror with this project, taking Marvel towards genre filmmaking in a way no other director has managed in the MCU’s 14-year history. It is an unabashed love letter to the monster movies that shaped our understanding of the genre, to the creepy and crawly stories we all grew up with, whether we loved to be scared or ended up hiding behind the couch.

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