'Werewolf by Night': A howling good time that could've gone further

A girl cowers against bars

The MCU digs its claws into the spooky season with the first-ever television special, Werewolf by Night, directed by Michael Giacchino (award-winning composer for films like Up and Ratatouille), with script by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron and based on the comic book character created by Roy Thomas, Jeanie Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Mike Ploog in 1972.

On a dark and shadowy night, a cabal of monster hunters gathers at Bloodstone Manor, the home of the recently deceased Ulysses Bloodstone. Ulysses was the leader and wielder of the Bloodstone, a relic of great power. To choose the new leader, each of the guests will compete in a hunt against a ferocious beast which carries the Bloodstone in his hide. The first person to kill the beast and take hold of the stone wins the title and the right to be keeper of the Bloodstone. But one of the group comes with a hidden agenda and a dark secret.

Werewolf by Night pays homage to the monster movies of the 1930s and 40s with its black-and-white cinematography, story, lighting, music, and pace. Although the film whets the appetite for the Universal monster movies of yore, I couldn't help wishing they leaned even further into the aesthetic promised in the trailer.

A man sits in a group wearing a gothic costume

The scare party kicks off to a brilliant start with an alternative version of the Marvel cold open, trading in the color palette for a black-and-white sequence and transposing the theme song into a minor key, before jumping into the title credits for the special. This signals to the viewer from the get-go that we enter a different corner of the MCU than ever before. From there, a pitch-perfect voice easily mimics the voice-over narration heard in radio dramas of the past, and anticipation rises for the promised escape into the golden age of Hollywood horror. Only, I was all too aware that I was watching only a shadow of that promise. The picture looked too clean to be vintage film. I found myself wishing they had applied visual effects to mimic the inevitable frayed look that old film strips have, like splices and scratches. And why not bring in sound effects like the scratches and pops heard in the trailer?  

Leaving that aside, Giacchino and company do many things right that lend the proper aesthetic. Production designer Maya Shimoguchi builds the perfect backdrop for the proceedings in Bloodstone Manor and the surrounding grounds. The score remains appropriately string-centric. The characters creep and slither through the set pieces, copying the intensifying pace of films like Doctor X and the 1931 Dracula. In the older movies, often the characters spend a lot of time hovering in dark shadows, leaving viewers to anticipate the next frightening image. Giacchino clearly knows the material and era he wants to copy, and there's a lot of joy in the creation. The lighting choices are especially impressive. The Hays Code forced horror directors of the past to make creative choices in how they showed violent acts on screen. In due turn, Giacchino uses shadows to help viewers only imagine the terror unfolding. In one of the best scenes, the camera zooms closer and closer to Elsa Bloodstone as she cowers in the corner – our only clue of the monster in her view signaled by the shadows on the wall behind her.

Standouts in the cast include Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle) as Jack Russell, our hero and a player in the game; Laura Donnelly (The Nevers) as Elsa Bloodstone, estranged daughter of Ulysses; and Harriet Samsom Harris (Memento; Phantom Thread) as Verusa Bloodstone, grieving widow of the departed and stepmother to Elsa. Bernal gives a hearty performance as a monster hunter with a dark secret and a painful past. Donnelly has fun donning a Transatlantic accent, but even in this brief special, she won me over with her fitting depiction of an adult trying to balance the responsibility of carrying a family legacy with her own identity. And Sansom is terrifying as Verusa. Like all women who align themselves with a cult leader, her loyalty looks a lot like fanaticism.

Harriet Sansom Harris as VERUSA in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT

Werewolf by Night kept me on my toes with its storyline, but in hindsight, I should have expected the final product. Monster movies of old never delivered what they promised on the surface. The scariest monsters always ended up being the humans. Just ask the monster from Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or Godzilla. Monster movies allow us to confront the beast within and find empathy for the creatures that look hideous.

I appreciate the effort that went into this bite-sized candy bar, but I would have preferred the jumbo fun size. If you are going to lean into the older movies, go all the way and bring us film splices, crackles and pops, and frayed edges. All that said, Werewolf by Night explores new corners of the MCU and brings new characters from the vaults out into the open. Bring us more Marvel Monsters, especially Man-Thing! 

Release info: 52 minute special begins October 7th on Disney Plus

Final score: 3.5 out of 5