Friday, October 07, 2022

Werewolf by Night, on Disney +

Believe it or not, Marvel’s dirty little movie secrets are mainly horror films. In the 1970s, they integrated many public domain movie monsters into Marvel Comics, with titles like The Tomb of Dracula. Subsequently, licensing the Marvelized monsters to Japanese anime producers might have seemed like a good deal in the early 1980s, but now they pretend Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned and The Monster Frankenstein never existed. Later, Man-Thing premiered as a Syfy movie in 2005, just as the MCU franchise was about to take off. Since then, Marvel has been gun-shy with respects to its old monster characters. However, for this year’s Halloween season, they have produced a one-hour special featuring two of their 1970s era monsters. The good news is Man-Thing gets some redemption in Michael Giacchino’s Werewolf by Night, which premieres today on Disney+.

Ulysses Bloodstone is dead, so his custody of the mystical Bloodstone must pass to another. It should have been his estranged daughter Elsa’s birthright, but she must also participate in the ceremonial contest devised by her spiteful stepmother Verussa, along with the other monster hunters. They are mostly a nasty, sadistic lot, except Jack Russell, but he doesn’t really belong there. He is actually a monster (the original “Werewolf by Night” and friend of all terriers), who infiltrated their ritual gathering.

We soon learn Russell’s good friend Ted Sallis, a.k.a. Man-Thing, was abducted by Verussa to serve as the quarry in their competitive hunt. Russell does not want to kill anyone—and he shouldn’t have to since the moon is not yet full, but the other hunters are perfectly willing to slay their competition, including him and Elsa Bloodstone, for the sake of the prize.

Somewhat counter-intuitively given the title, Bloodstone is the focal protagonist of
Werewolf by Night, rather than Russell. Maybe they should call here “Elsa the She-Wolfhunter of the MCU,” to attract Nazisploitation fans. Regardless, throughout most of the special, the aloof, mercenary Bloodstone is much harder to root for than the loyal and affable Russell.

In fact, the screenplay credited to Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron has several conceptual problems. Most fundamentally for a Halloween special, it refuses to be a satisfying monster-hunting horror movie, instead becoming a deadly Kumite/
Most Dangerous Game-style thriller, with supernatural characters involved. After watching the special, we’d really like to see Russell and Man-Thing take on a demonic Jack the Ripper in New Orleans and the surrounding bayous (Disney+, email me if you’d like a treatment).

Werewolf by Night is never scary, but the opening sequences designed to evoke vintage Universal monster movies are very cool. The black-and-white cinematography (with spot-red for the Bloodstone) is nostalgic in the right kind of way. Depicting Russell’s transformation in silhouette is a similarly clever through-back device. The detailed design work of the Bloodstone trophy hall is also terrific. Everything looks great, the story is just underwhelming.

Still, Gael Garcia Bernal is sufficiently earnest and charismatic as Russell to keep most viewers hooked. However, the best thing about the special is its redemption of Man-Thing. He looks incredible and has one of the best entrances in MCU history. If Man-Thing can be so successfully rehabilitated, can his sometimes companion Howard the Duck be far behind? Frustratingly, the special seems to be setting up further adventures for Elsa Bloodstone, but Laura Donnelly’s standoffish portrayal hardly begs for stand-alone feature treatment. The rest of the “hunters” are simply generic thugs, even the one played by Leonardo Lam.

It is disappointing that Giacchino and his effects and design teams did so much quality work on the Werewolf special, but they were still hobbled by a weak screenplay. The truth is the best Marvel horror film remains
Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned, which features a funky score and an unhinged grudge match between Dracula and a Satanic cult, obediently following the orders of their dark lord. It might have been produced on the cheap, but it is all kinds of trippy and groovy.

Werewolf By Night
just can’t compare. It has some nostalgic appeal and Man-Thing’s appearances are triumphant, but it truly lacks scares or any profound struggle between good and evil. It is just a grubby contest for power. The resulting film is diverting, but it falls short. Therefore, Werewolf by Night can’t be fully recommended when it starts streaming today (10/7) on Disney+.