Marvel Studios’ first Halloween special, Werewolf by Night has been a pleasant surprise on many fronts. Apart from being a new genre medium for the studio to explore, along with the introduction of monsters to the MCU, the special is also being directed by Michael Giacchino.
Note: The following review will contain spoilers for Werewolf by Night.
Werewolf by Night introduces a host of monster hunters to the MCU, chief among them being Jack Russel (Gael García Bernal) and Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly). The roughly one-hour special starts with our heroes meeting under the Bloodstone manor to pay respect to, and compete in a hunt to succeed, the late Ulysses Bloodstone. The gist of it is, in classic MCU fashion, centred around a McGuffin — the magical, all-powerful Bloodstone. Whosoever hunts down the beast of honour first shall own the Bloodstone to do with as they please. Of course, things are never as simple as it is quickly revealed that Jack Rusell is a friend of the ceremonial beast and a monster himself.
Marvel Studios has often been criticised for its monotonous feel. While Phase 4 of the MCU has been its most diverse yet, both in its cast and sub-genre of content, Werewolf by Night stands out well ahead of its peers. Visually the special is the MCU’s first monochrome affair, but it’s the little touches that Giacchino puts on the frame that really brings it closer to the monster movies of the 1930s it’s trying to emulate. Stock film grain, high contrast lighting, cigarette burns, and film splicing effects are all used subtly to make it appear that the special is set in the past, but the writing makes it clear it’s all a facade.
What the special does manage to do well, though, is setting a tense atmosphere. The scenes that need to be serious are that, and the humour doesn’t invade the intensity of the characters. Sure, Man-Thing (or “Ted”) is a bit of a goofball, but he’s one you can’t help but fall in love with. We’ve got another Groot situation all over again! There’s little time to set up the friendly relationship between Jack and Man-Thing, but we’re shown (and told) just enough to believe in their friendship. By the time the credits rolled, I wanted to see more of that relationship, and I’m sure we’re bound to get more of it in the future.
Werewolf by Night is also one of Marvel’s more violent delights, and the black-and-white colour grade helps mask pools of blood that would otherwise have the special get a TV-MA rating. There are some neat, quick shots of limbs being torn apart, and I, for one, quite enjoyed that. The monochrome look also helps ground the more magical activities in reality, at least as much as they can be. Spell-casting, body vaporisation (I made that phrase up), transformations, it’s all here, and for the most part, it all looks pretty good.
Most of the hour goes into setting up these characters and this world, and not getting to see the actual werewolf does seem like a wasted opportunity at first. However, once Jack Russel turns into the beast and we get our climatic action sequence, it becomes clear why it was saved for last. After watching god-level characters fight for the universe in this franchise, a werewolf tearing apart humans can seem a little tame. Naturally, the smart thing to do here is to break that action up into bite-sized chunks, so it feels all the more special when it does happen. Speaking of action, I wouldn’t call it extremely finessed, but it’s presented in a way that makes sense for the genre it’s trying to emulate. There are a few cool decisions in the blocking of those scenes, with one awesome long shot that helps it stand out.
While we don’t get to know too much about Jack, Elsa, Verussa or the other monster hunters, there’s enough here to know the last thing they want is to be in the same room. The secret brotherhood of monster hunters clearly has a big and eventful history behind it, but that isn’t important to the story being told in the special. Bernal and Donnelly’s performances give us a glimpse into their personal histories, and I wanted to know, nay see more of that. Jack Russel is a fun twist on the classic “innocent man turned beast” formula, and hiding it by posing as a monster hunter himself is a great subversion. What other monsters has he freed? That’s a question for another time, I suppose.
I was surprised by the restraint shown for not including any overt MCU references. If tomorrow it’s revealed that the special was set in a different reality, I wouldn’t doubt it. Of course, given the nature of the franchise, it will most likely connect to Blade and Moon Knight, but until then, I’d love to see more weird characters get introduced separately. More than that, I’m very interested in seeing what Giacchino does next. The composer-turned-director has flexed his incredible skill in merging both of his abilities into something special. Marvel is clearly keen on trying new things within Disney Plus, and annual Halloween specials exploring more of its spooky side would be a welcome move.
Werewolf by Night is a strong debut for both Michael Giacchino and Marvel’s local monster-verse, standing out from the rest of the franchise with an incredible atmosphere and devoted performances.