There is a staggering amount of overlap between horror films and superhero movies.
James Wan (Aquaman), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man/Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness), Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange), Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Homecoming), David F. Sandberg (Shazam!), and James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), among others, all got their starts directing major horror movies. There’s something about the genre that the studios behind these big-budget superhero blockbusters find absolutely irresistible. Maybe it’s because these directors are used to small budgets and have proven they know how to manage money. Maybe it’s because they have experience with practical and special effects. Or maybe it’s just because there’s some sort of deep, ideological overlap between comic book fans and horror lovers.
Either way, superhero films seem to be helmed by horror filmmakers more than any other genre demographic.
Yet, despite this clear trend, superhero films themselves rarely, if ever, feature any real horror subject matter. Which, frankly, I find odd. Why would you hire Sam Raimi, of Evil Dead fame, if you aren’t going to let him do what he’s best at? And sure, you get the POV cam shot in Spider-Man 2 of Doc Ock’s tentacles killing surgeons deadite-style, but that’s it. Likewise, in his return to the capes-and-spandex arena twenty years later, Raimi’s Multiverse of Madness manages co-opts some macabre imagery and some brief moments of supernatural mayhem, but the film as a whole largely avoids delving any deeper into horror tropes. And that’s in spite the fact that particular film was hyped by Marvel as being the MCU’s first “real horror film.”
Clearly, Marvel and I have two very different definitions of what that means.
So you can imagine my skepticism when Marvel and Disney+ announced a horror Halloween special for this year, Werewolf by Night. Allegedly a love-letter to the old-school Universal horror films of the early 20th century, the hour-long installment into the supernatural side of the MCU had a promising first trailer. Shot entirely in black-and-white, it tells the story of a modern-day Wolf-Man, being pursued by a group of monster hunters. Also, Man-Thing is there, for some reason. I could see the stylistic influences, and the dedication to the visual style was intriguing, but after being promised horror-themed heroics before, I didn’t get my hopes up.
But I’m genuinely thrilled to report that my skepticism was unwarranted: Werewolf By Night is fantastic.
Famed composer Michael Giacchino arrives in his directorial debut with a slick, wonderfully-paced send-up of classic cinema, and manages to deliver more thrills, chills, and laughs in his 55 minute runtime than most recent Marvel directors have been able to do with two hours (looking at you, Taika). Werewolf by Night is a perfect bit of Halloween fun, pulling a shockingly few amount of punches considering its Disney origins.
The plot is scant, as one would expect for such a short runtime, but its simplicity is its greatest strength: There’s no unnecessary padding, no extraneous subplots, and, in a rare move for Marvel, no aimless pitstops along the way to wink at the audience or tease future properties. I kept waiting for the obligatory Blade reference, or Doctor Strange cameo, but none every appeared. There isn’t even a post-credits scene. Werewolf By Night is fully allowed to exist as its own unique entity, standing alone in the greater MCU as perhaps the franchise’s only entry in over ten years to feel like it has a truly individual and independent identity. If you edited out the opening Marvel logo and fanfare, you’d likely have no idea that this was even associated with property. And it’s an incredibly freeing feeling.
From the moment that standard Marvel title card appears, Werewolf by Night is practically oozing with retro style. The usual roll of comic-book shots from previous films is rendered in black-and-white, as is the rest of the piece, accompanied by a delightfully-campy score that sounds as though it was recorded on a phonograph. We even get an old-school, seemingly hand-painted title card to intro the special, leading into what I believe were genuine matte painting backgrounds for the establishing shots. And while the dialogue and action is decidedly more modern in its approach, the visual and musical styles on display are so authentic to the period Werewolf By Night is attempting to evoke that it would legitimately not feel remarkably out of place next to a showing of The Wolf Man itself.
Another piece of the filmmaking styles from years past, and perhaps my personal favorite thing about the entire special, is the look of the titular werewolf. It’s not the streamlined, monstrous bipedal wolf that we’re used to seeing in modern depictions, made popular by things like Underworld. No, Werewolf By Night treats the original Wolf Man as a mandatory template, giving us a practical werewolf suit that emphasizes the ‘man’ in ‘wolfman.’ The beast is feral, dangerous, and actually pretty frightening, all the while strutting around the in the nearly the same makeup that Lon Chaney himself wore all the way back in 1941. I was giggling like an excited kid every time it was on screen.
And while these aspects of the special harken back to the 30s and 40s, the action and violence here actually feel more inline with the 1970s. It’s almost grindhouse in the way that it flaunts the grisly consequences of its lycanthropic mayhem, with its monochrome style allowing it to sneak in a frankly shocking amount of gore. Throats are ripped out, limbs are torn off, and heads are crushed and scorched. From a series that tends to lean more into ‘knock the bad guys unconscious’ territory, Werewolf By Night really pushed the boundaries from what you might expect from a Disney+ property.
But despite the violence and the stakes, Werewolf By Night manages to walk a fine balance to still feel more fun than gross. Gone are the usual Marvel quips-per-minute, instead replaced by a more natural, satisfying campy sense of humor that emphasizes situational comedy more than hamfisted wisecracks. The tone is very Addams Family at times, finding humor in the macabre and the spooky rather than in trendy pop culture references and Gen Z speak. Which, frankly, is more refreshing than anything else. And the characters are all endearing and fun when they need to be, while still being able to sell the necessary fear and intensity that one would expect from what is ostensibly a horror property.
Speaking of the characters, we have two leads in the special, both of which bring their own unique energy and charm to the whole affair. Our titular werewolf, Jack Russel, is played by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, who instills the character with a sense of vulnerability and nobility, while at the same time being a force to be reckoned with. He’s mysterious and suave, but also somewhat awkward and a little dorky too. I suspect his relationship with a certain other character, who I won’t spoil, will be a fan favorite.
Opposing/aiding Jack is Else Bloodstone (one of only characters in this thing I’ve actually heard of before), played by Outlander’s Laura Donnelly. She’s rude, snarky, and determined, in a way that invokes strong Jessica Jones vibes. She even looks startlingly similar to Krysten Ritter’s portrayal of the superpowered PI, to the point where I genuinely thought it was her for the first few scenes. It’s uncanny. Basically, she’s Jessica Jones if she hunted monsters instead of cheating spouses. Which is both awesome and pretty accurate to the comic version of Elsa. The rest of the supporting cast is equally fun, representing a whole host of tropes from various eras of monster cinema. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing everyone, from their introductions through their gnarly deaths.
I have nothing bad to say about Werewolf By Night. Despite my reservations, it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had with a comic book property. Fans of Hellboy will surely be pleased, as well as anyone who likes the fun monster action of movies like The Mummy and Van Helsing. Superhero fans will get a kick our of the action sequences, horror fans will appreciate the blood and creature effects, and general audiences can revel in all the fun Halloween atmosphere. I sincerely hope Marvel takes note of the positive reception that the special is getting, and greenlights more of these one-shot, self-contained stories. Give me a Dracula story next Halloween! It’ll put us one step closer to this becoming a reality:
Seriously, go check out Werewolf By Night if you haven’t already. It’s a great time, and is utterly perfect for the October season.
That’s all for today! Check back in tomorrow for my review of the new Hellraiser film, out now on Hulu!
And Happy Halloween!