Imagine if you had the power, resources, and talent to create your ultimate dream project.
Imagine if you could painstakingly obsess over every detail, finesse every flaw, sculpt your clay and wield your tools with total mastery of skill, with no restraint, until you made manifest the immaculate dream you could have only dreamt as a child.
That is Werewolf by Night.
Michael Giacchino has dreamt of monster stories for 50 years. From James Whale to Hammer Horror to the Twilight Zone, every frame of WBN is a love letter to the most timeworn tales of terror. Lovingly recreating the look of the Universal classics, the grainy monochrome and vignette edges give the special a delightfully retro feel.
Costumes and dialects representing every era help unburden the special from one specific moment in time, adding to the eternally timeless quality. Coupled with a grandly operatic score and a modern sense of kitsch, the result is an honorable homage to the holistic history of horror.
Werewolf by Night is fantastic. Loaded with references to monster mythologies from world folklore, the special embeds Jack Russell, Man-Thing, and Elsa Bloodstone firmly in the time-honored tradition of monster tales retold with a modern edge. Choosing to divorce itself from the safe comfort of the MCU allows these outsiders to shine in their own flawed, quirky glory.
Giacchino has a deep love for the Jack Russell character: He read the original comics run as a kid, pitched the special to Kevin Feige nearly four years ago, and is a long-time listener of the Werewolf By Night comics commentary podcast. His passion for the character is self-evident in the special, to the extent that Jack’s werewolf form is an exact adaptation of the original Mike Ploog design and the credits even homage classic panels from Werewolf By Night (1972) #1.
[Warning for some mild spoilers and early impressions of Werewolf by Night in my review below!]
Characterizations in Werewolf by Night
I was pleased to see that Giacchino softened Jack’s character, who can occasionally be abrasive in the comics. While the director doesn’t shy away from darkness (Jack seems to have suicidal thoughts, true to his comic counterpart), he still allows Gael García Bernal to be a genuinely sweet guy, which creates a tasteful juxtaposition with his savage werewolf form.
Laura Donnelly’s Elsa Bloodstone is an absolute delight. More than just another action hero with a bad attitude, the special perfectly captures her complicated feelings about her family legacy and sets her up to become THE iconic Elsa Bloodstone from the comics. Although the special is told from Jack’s point of view, this is truly Elsa’s story.
Carey Jones’ Man-Thing steals the show. The filmmakers took the liberty of giving him more sentience than in the comics, and the change is absolutely for the better. This is a phenomenal adaptation of Man-Thing, a sentimental snapshot of the human soul tucked within his powerful form.
I still cannot process the JOY of seeing Man-Thing brought to life so authentically, so beautifully, so lovingly. Thank you Michael Giacchino.
Overall impressions for Marvel’s Werewolf By Night
But more than the monsters, the secret to this special’s success is that Giacchino directs through score. The main musical motif is a callback to the dark fairytale themes of classic Burton/Elfman collaborations, and the dynamics of Giacchino’s gothic bombast guide the action and emotions throughout the whole presentation.
The strength of the music is especially effective in the nonverbal scenes of action and suspense that make up most of the special, creating a strong storytelling symbiosis between sound and image.
I was also impressed with the use of light and shadow, which is always important for black-and-white productions and especially essential for horror. Lighting sources are strategically placed around the elaborate sets, carefully choosing what to illuminate, what to silhouette, and what to keep hidden.
And smartly so, because more than what is shown, Giacchino’s directorial brilliance is what is not shown. By trusting the power of the shadows and score, Giacchino ingeniously creates the most horrific sequences imaginable without becoming garishly grindhouse. Additionally, the black and white allows for more style and more blood, but is also forgiving on the visual effects, allowing our attention to stay on the story, emotions, and joy of the experience.
I felt that the weakest part of the special was the dialogue. To me, the awkward pacing in the slower talking scenes needed minor trimming to flow smoothly. But this is absolutely not a major issue, particularly since Giacchino’s music carries the emotions of the story much more powerfully than their simple words do.
At the end of the short film, I was left staring at my screen in shock. I just could not believe it was something real in front of me. Werewolf By Night is the surreal manifestation of 50 years of comic fans’ dreams. This special pays tribute to not only the Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing comics of the 1970s, but even the modern Bloodstone comics of the 2000s.
Like the Darkhold lore in Multiverse of Madness, I am always amazed when adaptations actually line up with comic history. In this kind of magical, rare circumstance, knowing the deeper history of Ulysses, Elsa, Jack, Man-Thing, and the Bloodgem actually enriched my experience, because this special lines up so authentically with their actual backstories in the comics.
Werewolf By Night is so true to its characters, and so perfectly timeless, that it’s an immediate recommendation for fans of horror and monsters, especially fans of Marvel’s 1970s horror classics and 2010s Legion of Monsters saga. I cannot wait to see these heroes develop in the future.
I’m so thankful to Kevin Feige for choosing to spotlight this corner of the Marvel universe, but most of all, I’m thankful to Michael Giacchino for bringing his vision to life with the incredible passion of a true fan and a true filmmaker.
My rating for this special:
★★★★½ / ♥♥♥♥♥
Continue reading the solo adventures of Jack, Elsa, and Man-Thing, or check out their crossovers with Marvel’s Legion of Monsters!
All images courtesy of Marvel.