Marvel gets into the Halloween spirit this year with a new Disney+ special that introduces new characters to the MCU with a stylish twist. Werewolf by Night presents as a classic horror movie, dropping viewers into the middle of a secret world of monster hunters. The retro stylings and a pair of endearing leads successfully distract, at least for a while, from some of the more conventional MCU traits that prevent it from venturing too far into horror territory.
Ulysses Bloodstone’s passing leaves the throne open for a new leader of his monster hunter guild. His wife has assembled a group of the most ruthless monster slayers at Bloodstone Castle for a ceremonious hunt to determine their new ruler. The winner of the quest must successfully retrieve the Bloodstone from a creature prowling the castle grounds, and the hunters are free to take out their competition if it suits them. That paints a massive target on the back of Ulysses’ estranged daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly), who’s crashed the ceremony to demand her birthright. She finds common ground with mercenary Jack Russell (Gael Carcia Bernal), a reluctant ally harboring a few shocking secrets.
Film composer Michael Giacchino directs the special, penned by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron. Giacchino focuses on evoking the classic horror vibe to assist in the initial worldbuilding. The events play out in monochrome, save for the vibrant red glow of the Bloodstone. Cigarette burns and film grain get added for that retro look. The rules of the hunt get relayed to the cutthroat candidates by way of reanimated dead, albeit in a much campier and family-friendly way via animatronics. Aside from the aesthetics, Werewolf leans heavily into the mysterious. Our leads, Elsa and Jack, keep their motivations close to the vest, lending intrigue.
Once the hunt kicks into high gear, the classic horror homage falls to the background as the Marvel fights take center stage. At this point, the special looks a bit too polished and modern for its vintage leanings. Giacchino is less effective at making these moments engaging, and the monochrome filter becomes more of a crutch to help obscure the messy fight scenes. The climactic battle that involves its eponymous lycanthrope becomes even more incoherent with strobe light effects.
The good news is that the vintage black and white cinematography lets the MCU get away with spilling some blood; blood splatters the camera at one point. More importantly, the werewolf isn’t some terrible CGI creation but a Jack Pierce-inspired beast with practical application. If only it didn’t shy away from a proper transformation.
Bernal and Donnelly are instantly winsome, too. There’s an easy chemistry between them and an oddball pairing dynamic that charms. Their performances are infectious, and the script presents just enough character details about them that reel you in but leaves you wanting to know more. It’s through Elsa and Jack that Werewolf ultimately succeeds. The occasional macabre and horror humor also helps.
Giacchino uses broad brushstrokes to paint his classic horror tribute, creating an uneven homage that can’t fully marry the ’30s style horror to the Marvel mold. Werewolf is at its most fun when attempting to live in that horror world and least fun when hurling through MCU fight scenes between monster hunters we’ve just met and don’t care to know. Ultimately, this experimental Halloween special doesn’t push the horror as far as it could or should go, struggling to marry its inspiration to the MCU superhero format. Still, it’ll suffice as an entry point to horror and at least leaves you hoping to see more of Jack, his buddy Ted, and Elsa in the future.
Werewolf by Night premiered at Fantastic Fest and will debut on Disney+ on October 7.
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