Werewolf by Night Review: Marvel Goes Full Horror in Halloween Special

Werewolf by Night Review: Marvel Goes Full Horror in Halloween Special

After dipping a toe into the horror genre with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” earlier this year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe jumps into the deep end with “Werewolf by Night” — well, as much as it can within the MCU’s strict PG-13 parameters. It’s the creepiest and bloodiest Marvel project by far, and clocking in at a lean 53 minutes long, it’s a perfect, snack-sized Halloween treat heading into the spookiest of seasons.

The set-up to director Michael Giacchino’s “Werewolf by Night” is simple: A group of deadly monster hunters arrive at Bloodstone Temple to participate in a hunt to win the Bloodstone (the latest Marvel MacGuffin) and become heirs to the creepy, beast-filled property. In addition to hunting their prey, the characters turn on each other during a bloody night of backstabbing and creature carnage.

The MCU has introduced some obscure characters into its pantheon, and “Werewolf by Night” has some of the latest “who?” moments. Gael García Bernal is Jack Russell, a monster hunter who, ironically, is stricken with lycanthropy and must conceal his true identity. The special pays homage to the classic, black-and-white Universal monster movies, and Jack is a clear-as-day, but deadly-at-night, “Wolf Man.” As a human, he’s meek and utterly reluctant to transform into his werewolf form. But when he does, it’s a genuine thrill to witness the butchery he unleashes upon his poor, fellow monster hunters. The only downside to his performance is the actual look of the werewolf. It’s thankfully not all CGI, but when he’s finally revealed, he doesn’t have the most intimidating or hulking figure like other movie monsters. Nevertheless, the previously unknown character will surely be at the center of MCU fans’ speculation about where he will appear next.

Laura Donnelly co-stars as Elsa Bloodstone, estranged daughter of the deceased patriarch Ulysses Bloodstone. Elsa must’ve taken a few lessons at the Black Widow School of Acrobatic Combat, because she holds her own against her hairy companion in the special’s handful of fight scenes. She has one memorable scuffle featuring a dismembered limb (not the only one in “Werewolf by Night”) that should have even the most jaded Marvel viewers impressed. There’s a brief romantic subplot between Jack and Elsa, but it’s so thin it may as well be “The Invisible Man.” The other characters are forgettable, just a ragtag group of clichéd, big-game hunter fodder for the werewolf to sink his teeth into. Luckily, the minor hang-ups don’t detract from the spooky story and blood-splattering action.

The MVP of “Werewolf by Night” has to be the supernatural monster Man-Thing (no, not Swamp Thing, as seen on HBO Max’s “Harley Quinn,” though they must be long-lost cousins). It’s a brief, but enthralling, role with quality CGI, as some other animated characters, like the maligned design of She-Hulk, have recently gotten some bad press online. Man-Thing behaves like a monstrous Groot, with the same lovable, extra-large heart, and he steals the show (just be sure to call him by his real name).

“Werewolf by Night,” co-written by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron, effectively channels campy, old-school horror like “Dracula,” “The Invisible Man” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” It’s unlike anything Marvel has done before, and first-time feature director Giacchino, rises to the occasion. Most known for his countless composing credits, like “The Batman,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home, “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Lost,” Giacchino knows how to build tension through sound and deliver a creepy, cobwebbed world, complete with a jump scare or two.

“Werewolf by Night” marks an exciting turn for the MCU — it’s the first in a (I hope) long line of special presentations, branded as one-offs for the ever-sprawling universe. Coming up in December is James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special,” presumably another short, gingerbread-themed project. But “Werewolf by Night” is a triumphant first effort at losing the capes and spandex and delving into more genre territory for Marvel.

“Werewolf by Night” premieres on Disney+ on Oct. 7.