Air Date: 7 October 2022
Director: Michael Giacchino
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet Sansom Harris, Kirk R. Thatcher, and Carey Jones/Jeffery Ford
Back in February 1972, Roy Thomas, Jeanie Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Mike Ploog (under the direction of the legendary Stan Lee) introduced readers to Jack Russell/Werewolf by Night in the pages of Marvel Spotlight. After a ridiculous ban kept Marvel from publishing stories about werewolves and other supernatural creatures, the writers were finally free to explore these elements, and Werewolf by Night, soon graduated to his own self-titled series later that same year. Coming from a long line of lycanthropes and sharing a complex history with Count Dracula and the cursed Darkhold, Jack Russell became a feral beast under the light of a full moon and was repeatedly targeted by a nefarious cabal known as the Committee, who also introduced the emotionally damaged vigilante Marc Spector/Moon Knight to Marvel’s readers. Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure characters, Werewolf by Night was pegged for a big-screen adaptation back in 2001; after numerous drafts and delays, Crystal Sky Pictures seemed ready to begin shooting when the project simply vanished from their slate. Hopes for the Werewolf lived again, however, when Kevin Smith was denied use of the character for a 2019 project, and the character was officially announced to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fourth phase in a one-hour, horror-themed special for Disney+. Director Michael Giacchino drew specific inspiration from the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s and promised that the special would include some of Marvel’s most famous monster characters, such as Doctor Ted Sallis/Man-Thing. Upon its release, Werewolf by Night was met with largely positive reviews; critics praised the aesthetic and brisk pace, and the homage to classic Hammer Horror films, while also noting that the characters and certain visuals were somewhat disappointing.
A group of monster hunters gather at Bloodstone Manor following the death of their leader and engage in a mysterious and deadly competition for a powerful relic, which will bring them face to face with a dangerous monster.
I might not know much, if anything, about Werewolf by Night but I’m more than familiar with the Hammer Horrors of yesteryear, classic black-and-white terrors that laid the foundation for popular depictions of screen monsters such as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. I’m actually more a fan of the 1930 Hammer Horrors than the later renaissance spearheaded by the likes of Christopher Lee; there’s just something about the gothic aesthetic surrounding the likes of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. that I find endearing and appealing in its simplicity. Plus, those classic horrors are super brisk; you could probably watch all of them, or a good three or four, in just a few hours and that’s perfect for when you just want a short, sharp fix of horror rather than sitting through a two-hour feature film. Similarly, as someone who struggles to binge-watch even six-episode shows for these reviews, I couldn’t be happier that Werewolf by Night opts to simply be a short special presentation, clocking in at a little under an hour. I miss when Marvel used to produce one-shots to fill in gaps between movies and definitely think they would benefit from producing more one- or two-hour specials to flesh out some of their more obscure characters. Similar to how the old Hammer Horrors would open with some text or a voice over, so too does Werewolf by Night begin with an opening narration touching upon the malevolent monsters lurking in the darkness and those who hunt and kill them, with none being more prominent than the legendary Bloodstone family, whose patriarch has slaughtered monsters across the generations with the supernatural relic known as…well…the Bloodstone.
Following the death of Ulysses Bloodstone (Richard Dixon), the Bloodstone is in need of a new master, a process determined by inviting monster hunters from all over the world to take part in a ritualistic hunt to establish who is worthy of this powerful relic. Ulysses is survived by his widow, Verusa Bloodstone (Harris) and his estranged daughter, Elsa (Donnelly); Verusa is Elsa’s stepmother and is greatly disappointed by Elsa’s lack of interest in continuing the family tradition. Once thought to be capable of surpassing Ulysses’s abilities, Elsa instead abandoned her duties and her training but is nonetheless determined to take the Bloodstone for herself. Verusa acts as the hostess for the gathering of hunters, with over two-hundred confirmed kills shared between the death-dealers. Jovan (Thatcher) is easily the most bombastic of the group, making an impression through his impressive beard and facial scars, though only Jack Russell (Bernal) can claim over a hundred kills just for himself. With the exception of Elsa, all present see their crusade as a righteous one, a mission of mercy for the cursed and their victims, though there’s a definite flavour of cult-like sensibilities to their hunt. The hunt itself takes place on the grounds of Bloodstone Manor, a dark forest that leads to an Maurits Cornelis Escher-like labyrinth guarded by members of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), which probably explains why the layout and logic of the labyrinth makes little sense. Sporting tribalistic make-up to honour his ancestors, Jack is randomly selected to head out into the woods ahead of the others and his life is deemed to be as fair game as the monster, and any of the other hunters. Despite his impressive reputation as a monster killer, it turns out that Jack isn’t there to hunt their quarry, the swamp creature we know as the Man-Thing (Jones/Ford), but is actually there to rescue him and even refers to him by his real name, Ted. Thus, Jack wants no part of the hunt and even suggests to Elsa that they forget they saw each other, Jovan is driven into a frenzy by his desire to earn the Bloodstone, attacking Elsa with his axe and being surprised and unarmed by her martial arts skill. She then uses Jovan’s axe to more literally disarm Liorn (Leonardo Nam) and kill him with his own wrist-mounted crossbow, proving that she hasn’t been neglecting her training in her time away from Bloodstone Manor.
Although the Man-Thing is incapable of communicating beyond a few grunts and creaks, Jack is fully capable of understanding him and promises to relieve him of the Bloodstone, which hurts and weakens him, and blast their way out of there and to freedom. Although Azarel (Eugenie Bondurant) isn’t quite so altruistic, her attack does lead to Jack and Elsa finding some common ground and agreeing to help each other in return for her getting the Bloodstone and him getting the Man-Thing to safety. Although sceptical about Jack’s motives and his relationship to Man-Thing, Elsa is duly convinced that the creature is only a threat when provoked or senses a threat when he calms down after she reluctantly refers to him by his real name and takes Jack’s advice to treat him like an old friend rather than a monster. After some pratfalling with the explosives, Jack succeeds in freeing his friend but, when he tries to pick up the Bloodstone, it rejects him because he’s also hiding a monster within himself. Naturally, Verusa is disgusted by Jack’s charade and has him locked up with Elsa for her part in freeing the Man-Thing; although embittered that Jack kept his secret from her, Jack assures Elsa that he has “systems” in place to manage his monstrous side and that he works hard to keep that part of himself from hurting others. Unfortunately for him, Verusa doesn’t need to wait for the next full moon to witness Jack’s transformation as she possesses the Bloodstone; fearing what he’s capable of, he desperately tries to remember Elsa’s scent and begs for a merciful death, but Verusa forces him to undergo a startling transformation into a ravenous werewolf with her family relic. Naturally, the Werewolf goes on an animalistic rampage, savaging and tearing his way through anyone he deems a threat, but even his supernaturally-enhanced strength is nothing compared to the debilitating power of the Bloodstone, necessitating Elsa’s intervention to keep him from being killed. Retrieving the Bloodstone, Elsa is spared an evisceration after showing compassion for the Werewolf and Verusa meets a gruesome end when the Man-Thing gets his hands on her.
Werewolf by Night establishes itself as a very different kind of Marvel production right from the start; not only is the entire feature in black-and-white like the old Hammer Horror films, but the Marvel Studios logo and main theme have been altered to evoke the gothic horror aesthetic of those classic horror films, all the way down to flashes of lightning over the logo, a suitably Hammer-esque orchestral score, and even film grain to give it that weathered, 1930s feel. Everything about the special screams Hammer Horror, right down to the gothic Bloodstone Manor and its hieroglyphics depicting the generations of monster hunting to the stuffed monster heads adorning the walls and the presence of the Bloodstone family crypt. In fact, the only time colour is even used in the special is when the Bloodstone itself is on screen, with the gem shining with a piercing blood-red light and breathing colour into the film after Elsa claims it in the finale. Sadly, the visual presentation doesn’t extend to the cast of characters; it takes about thirty minutes to learn Jack’s name and none of the characters introduce themselves so it was pretty difficult to tell who was who. None of the hunters except Jovan really stood out and we never really get a sense of who they are or their backgrounds; even Elsa and Jack’s origins are left frustratingly vague and Verusa came across as a cackling pantomime villainess that, while suitable for the Hammer vibe of the special, didn’t exactly make her any more nuanced than wanting to destroy all monsters simply because they are monsters.
On the flip side, I have to say that it’s great to see a character as obscure and visually interesting as the Man-Thing finally make it into the MCU after years of subtle allusions and references. Although an entirely CGI creature rather than being a marriage of digital and practical effects like in the 2005 film, the Man-Thing certainly impresses when onscreen. While the Man-Thing is supernaturally powerful and capable of melting a man’s head with one giant claw-like hand, he also showcases a childish demeanour; the creature is in pain and frightened by his current situation and desperate to get to safety, there’s a definite sense of victory when Jack and Elsa are able to work together to free the lumbering swamp monster from his pain and bondage. Even better, we get to see the Man-Thing in full colour and even handing Jack a cup of coffee after he recovers from his transformation, showing that the creature isn’t just some mindless beast and has not just a measure of intelligence but also a sense of humour. Interestingly, Werewolf by Night bucks a trend of many werewolf tales by not drawing upon the classic An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981) for its transformation sequence; instead, Jack’s transformation is largely relegated to a CGI light show and silhouette, which adds an air of mystery to the Werewolf, for sure, but half the fun of a werewolf feature is the gruesome body horror of the transformation. The Werewolf’s look, in the few instances where he is shown, is a nice throwback to The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941); a furry, voracious humanoid wolf, the Werewolf makes short work of Verusa’s TVA guards, mangling, mauling, and manhandling them as Elsa takes out the last two hunts, all while framed by flashing lights and with a generous helping of gore splattering across the screen.
Ultimately, I’m somewhat torn; I enjoyed the visual presentation of the special, which is unlike anything else we’ve seen in the MCU and a fantastic throwback to the classic 1930s Hammer Horror films, but the characterisations are severely lacking. Obviously, it’s only an hour-long special so there’s only so much you can cram in there, and there’s something to be said for keeping an air of mystery around Jack and the Bloodstone family. However, it’s hard to care about the other hunters when none of them are ever named onscreen and they’re simply there to be cannon fodder for Elsa and the Man-Thing; even the appearance of TVA agents is a real head-scratcher and is never explained, nor do we learn anything about the Man-Thing’s backstory even as a throwaway line. The effects are pretty decent, but we don’t get to see the titular Werewolf until the last twenty minutes or so and even then he’s kept in shadow and framed in a way that keeps him monstrous to enhance his threat. I enjoyed seeing the Man-Thing in action, but I guess I was just expecting more monster action from this monster-centric special. I can understand wanting to showcase Jack as a human being trying to suppress his monstrous alter ego and I enjoyed that he goes out of his way to help monsters rather than hunt and kill them, but I didn’t find him a particularly compelling character. Similarly, there was some nuance to Elsa and potential in her conflict with her stepmother and her father’s legacy, but it just wasn’t expanded upon sufficiently enough for me. She’s just another bad-ass female fighter who distances herself from her family’s actions, but it’s not really explained why and all we’re really told is that Verusa and Ulysses recently Elsa for not living up to her potential (yet we see she’s the most capable fighter of all the hunters). In the end, I applaud the attempt at something new, visually and stylistically, and the introduction of monsters to the MCU, but, as presented, Werewolf by Night could easily be skipped or ignored at this point and I’d be surprised to see it directly referenced in later MCU projects.
Could Be Better
What did you think to Werewolf by Night? Were you disappointed by the lack of insight and characterisation in the hunters? What did you think to Man-Thing, his visuals and his portrayal? Would you have liked to see more monsters featured in the special? What did you think to the Werewolf, his transformation and his bloody rampage? Did you enjoy the references to classic Hammer Horror films? Would you like to see more from these characters, and are there any specific Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing stories you’d like to see adapted into the MCU? Whatever your thoughts Werewolf by Night, leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.