Jamie Arena says Werewolf by Night is a sweet ode to classic creature features but doesn’t fully succeed at intertwining the Marvel formula.
This year, Marvel introduced a whole new world and set of characters with a Disney+ special feature. Werewolf by Night (2022) directed by acclaimed composer Michael Giacchino, immediately immerses in an inspired classic horror movie from Hollywood’s golden age of cinema. As an ode to creature features, particularly the Universal Classic Monsters from the 30s - 50s, Werewolf by Night embodies the gothic attributes that were prominent in the film series. Through blood-curdling screams, chilling composition, and Frankenstein influences, the film’s runtime exudes light horror elements with Marvel panache. Its black and white aesthetic paired with practical effects and stylized Marvel Cinematic Universe opening credits culminate in a sophisticated, fun, and visually haunting film.
Screenwriters Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron keep the plot of Werewolf by Night straightforward while contributing bits of morbid humor that delight. The death of Ulysses Bloodstone leaves the throne of his monster hunter empire empty. His wife Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris) summons monster hunters from around the world to participate in a ceremonial battle to determine who will control the Bloodstone relic, a powerful supernatural weapon that Ulysses had long wielded. The contestants are free to take out their competition if they want — whoever successfully receives the red glowing stone from a creature that wanders the temple grounds, wins. That leaves Ulysses’ estranged daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly) vulnerable after returning to the kingdom uninvited to claim her birthright. On her journey, Elsa allies with a mysterious man, Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal), who possesses a monstrous secret.
The performances of its lead cast are a driving force behind Werewolf by Night’s success. Bernal perfectly matches the special’s tone, weighing Marvel's silliness and the underlining intensity of the film’s classic inspirations. He brings a gentle earnestness to Jack, longing to control his beastly secret and bring peace. Jack understands his potential to harm others and even has systems he lives by in order to “manage the hurt he could cause,” which includes locking himself up during nights when the moon is full. Bernal’sface flashes with heartbreak and fear when he thinks about the one time he was able to recognize someone in his werewolf form.
Likewise, Donnelly tightly grasps her motivations, playing Elsa as a timeless noir femme fatale struggling with generational abuse. Her trauma is portrayed in Elsa’s body language and facial expressions as she returns to the place of her painful upbringing. Bernal and Donnelly manage to convey everything we need to know about their characters. Jack and Elsa’s chemistry is a charming balance marrying her grit and his tenderness and there is a subtle connection between the two as they bond through their family hardships.
Once we enter the Bloodstone hunt, we start to lose a lot of the vintage glamor and run into typical Marvel Cinematic Universe restraints. The fight scenes are more brutal than usual for the studio, and the black-and-white cinematography allows Marvel to spill copious amounts of blood (which douses the lens at one point), but it's still too modern. The film’s “Marvel-sized budget” interrupts the nostalgia, which stops Werewolf by Night from completely submerging us in the bygone era of cinema aesthetic, as the vintage aesthetic of the film starts to fade away.
Giacchino’s score supports the eerie atmosphere, which overflows with phantom echoes, ominous horns, and whirling flutes. Every framed shot maintains a sense of dread and tension. Giacchino and cinematographer Zoë White follow the likes of George Waggner's The Wolf Man (1941), by making Jack’s transformation in shadow while the camera pans to Elsa’s terrified expression as grizzly tearing rings loudly. The best part is instead of a typical Marvel CGI fabrication, the titular lycanthrope has bold practical costuming and makeup. However, the third act fight scene with the werewolf is less compelling with the addition of strobe lighting that distracts from most of the action.
Giacchino’s love letter to Universal Classic Monsters doesn't completely remove itself from the Marvel formula, but it's refreshing to see a project from Marvel Studios that stands completely on its own, focusing on just a night of these characters’ lives from their perspective. Werewolf by Night is at its greatest when it focuses on its horror inspirations instead of trying to flow through multiple overly refined fight scenes. Thankfully, this doesn’t detract from the overall viewing experience. Combining its classic horror creative intentions with the superhero movie mold is uneven, but the film’s experimental nature is exciting, and if we don’t get to see Jack, Elsa, and Ted (Carey Jones) again, at least it's another step toward more horror and genre-bending Marvel features in the future.
Werewolf by Night is now streaming on Disney+.