Werewolf by Night – The Middling Macabre

Thar be monsters in Werewolf by Night, a 53-minute film produced by Disney Plus with the mindset of a Halloween TV special for the streaming age (it has space for 7 minutes of commercials without needing any). Michael Giacchino, the composer who brought the Star Trek reboot and The Batman to thrumming life, takes a stab at direction with this treatment of the 1972 comic, starring Gael García Bernal as Jack Russell, a monster-befriender with painful eye circles by day and *thunder crash* a werewolf by night *howl sound.* The streaming special takes place over the course of one night where famed monster hunters (famed to each other, not to us) gather to win a coveted artifact (the Bloodstone, all italics) from a deceased hunter-master’s estate. The film mercifully never considers detouring to a perfunctory origin flashback – the existence of a werewolf isn’t the subject of the film. It’s the hairy bomb we know is under the table. But it explains itself better than it explodes.

Zoë White’s cinematography does the job of referring to the Universal monster films of the 30s and 40s, if not of living up to them. This is where Werewolf by Night shines as well as smolders since a viewer could take the references at their word as tributes to another era just as easily as they could deride them as clumsy pretenders to a bloody throne. Arguably, the viewer most experienced in the films being referenced would be the one least willing to accept this unconvincing impression as truth – the film’s true intended audience is someone in the goldilocks zone of horror fandom, who knows what the film is referencing without knowing it well. It’s another example of how the MCU has made being a geek a liability in a brand trying to be popular rather than an advantage in a brand trying to be precise.

Still, it’s easiest to be swept away in lightning flashes and shadows when the film lets the visuals make its thematic statements, such as when a character first enters the gloom of the main hall beneath its theatrical entrance curtains with that slow push-in shot that has made the casino entrance in Skyfall a visual touchstone. The film's more difficult task bares its teeth when characters supposedly gathered by firelight in a Victorian hunting mansion speak with the tempo of horror fans on a message board. This impression of the MCU’s tone doesn’t thrive on humor as a pacing device, but it can’t shake its presence even in the direst circumstances. No matter how much funnier the material would be if it was played completely straight, the Marvel films nudge each other into their mutual comedic negative space. It’s a world where pausing after an awkward statement is the funniest joke in the universe. It hopes this is no different in a turn-of-the-century adventure as a 25th-century one, but Werewolf by Night proves that it sticks out more in an illusion of a simpler time than in an adaptation of a cluttered one.

The humor never possesses Werewolf by Night, but it’s a consistent reminder that not even installments in this series marketed on difference can ever truly acknowledge their unique identity (imagine if The Dark Knight Rises had to make passing references to the tone of Green Lantern to maintain consistency). Harriet Sansom Harris brings Verussa, the hunter-master’s widow, to screeching life as near as anyone could to the standards of shrieking henchwomen wives in all those ancient monster pictures. She's closest to the tone of the difference between this film and the rest of the MCU. But much of the cast, including Kirk Thatcher as Jovan, the Viking-like, broad-ax-wielding monster-crusher (allegedly) and Eugenie Bondurant as the skeletal Azarel, seem to be denizens of deleted scenes that would fit in any film in the series. She has a name that means "helped by God" in Hebrew and probably required 4 hours in a makeup chair to achieve her ethereal blankness, and results in probably less than 80 seconds of total screentime. It's not a film that makes the most of its human resources.

A solid scene featuring their initial bonding, such as a pre-hunt meal at an endless table, might have sold their presence as more than an off-hand reference to pad out the world with fleeting moments of contrast. In its 53 minutes, the film sets up enough characters for 80 despite being paced like it wishes it could be 30. It never quite commits to them (I couldn’t remember a single name without looking them up). Marvel fanatics may recognize Man-Thing, a culty character from Savage Tales, as soon as his Lovecraftian tendrils reach out from the shadows, but it’s a telling assessment of the film’s management of its cast’s quest for charm that he’s the clear victor among a half-dozen good actors, despite being computer-generated (another break in the film’s illusion of its period) and mostly shrubbery.

The creaky manor is a great if underused foil for the glassy sheen of the normal MCU get-together (most of the film takes place in its outdoor garden areas). But the 1930s horror conceptualization never goes beyond the literal, with little in the film’s stylistic pacing or character interactions to refer to the era that its visuals pretend to be set in. This style (more of a pastiche) never commits to being scary and is constantly afraid of being too funny, so like the film's uncommitted relationship with its length, the result hovers somewhere between. A few extreme closeups read more like 70s horror in black-and-white while the level of the mid-shots looks more like a meeting of the Avengers than a conference of worriers in Dracula. It's a mash of styles dog-earred from history, never settling on a specific recreation. The eventual transformation gimmick is a great piece of craft though, giving those who doubted the film’s ability to compete with the genre’s hairy standards an excuse to chalk it up as its own thing. It’s genuinely exciting to see this single-issue logic finally unfold in the context of a film that has no guarantee that anyone will survive. It took the isolationism of the TV special format to find that particular tension, which most films have naturally, in a series better defined by the comfort of endlessness than the cost of closure.

"One of you is a monster, masquerading as one of our own," Verussa crackles. That one bit could have been explored in a whole shimmering plot concept that borrowed some paranoia from The Thing, pitting the cast against each other in an emotional cat-and-mouse parlor game where they all try to lure out the monster, suspecting everyone, and eventually devolving into bloody action. It could have been Clue with a werewolf. Instead, the screenplay by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron does nothing with that statement other than prepare the audience for a werewolf they already know is there. They never decided what the dramatic core of the movie would be, so no matter how its action or visuals are estimated, it's difficult not to immediately see missed potential in every hard-earned shadow.

Werewolf by Night strategically positions itself in comparison only to other MCU content, which is a battle that it can win by default on the virtue of difference. But as a horror debut, it’s a far cry from the scope of its competition, being nowhere as stylistically encompassing as films the industry produces regularly (movies like It Follows, The Witch, or the black-and-white medieval fantasy November, made on a few million dollars at most, run bloody circles around the efforts here). Still, Werewolf by Night manages the tough feat of being serviceable in a genre defined by extremes, if its genre is taken as “comic book movie” rather than horror. Watching and forgetting the film comes easily; viewers naturally await its next installment without actively anticipating it, forgiving Disney if they never make one while kissing their ringed fingers if they do. That’s far from the rabid passion that comics inspire at their most persuasive, but it’s no one’s fault but Disney's that they treat dramatic investment like a silver bullet that would kill the whole mythology if anyone made one. If a werewolf spin-kicking faceless goons under a strobe light doesn’t do it for you, they seem to say, you’re probably on the wrong streaming service. They've made it so uncool to leave though that most people are just thankful for something a little different while they wait out the lull together.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Marvel Studios

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