The MCU’s most blatant flirtation with horror yet proves a winning endeavor.
For the brave trick-or-treaters who venture to the front door of the old abandoned MCU Manor, a spooky treat awaits. All courtesy of one of Marvel’s more obscure characters—Werewolf by Night.
In a creepy mansion, monster hunters are gathering to pay homage to a fallen member of their fraternity, Ulysses Bloodstone (voiced by Richard Dixon, played by a puppet corpse). It’s the night they traditionally meet up for a hunting event so they’ll honor their own way. They’ll hunt a monster to secure the source of Ulysses’ power, the Bloodstone.
In addition to our protagonist, the delightfully named Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal)—can you guess his secret?—the event has attracted several fellow hunters. Lonely Jovan (Kirk R. Thatcher) loves Russell’s look but doesn’t care for any cultural discussion about it. Azarel (Eugenie Bondurant) serves Ziggy Stardust, but more alien, vibes. Liorn (Leonardo Nam) has little to say and plenty of weapons to make his point. Barasso (Daniel J. Watts) seems to have no interest in the camaraderie Jovan longs for. The primary catalyst of his annoyance appears to be Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the deceased’s estranged daughter.
Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris), Elsa’s stepmother and organizer of this hunting competition as memorial, shares Barasso’s anger. She has no use for her evidently errant stepdaughter, making it clear she feels Elsa made a mockery of the Bloodstone legacy. When she tells everyone else that everyone is fair game in their pursuit of Man-Thing (Carey Jones), including Elsa, you can feel the sick thrill Verussa gets from it.
It’s rare one might call a (television) film that features multiple spurts of blood and an on-screen arm ripping “delightful,” but here we are.
It’s rare one might call a (television) film that features multiple spurts of blood and an on-screen arm ripping “delightful,” but here we are. The aforementioned Harris fully understands the assignment, starting at a 9 and going up several steps from there. Even Spinal Tap’s famous amplifier wouldn’t be able to match her. By going so huge, she allows García Bernal to give Russell a sweet, almost silly disposition. Donnelly, similarly, gets to go small with Elsa, giving us hints of motivation and personal turmoil while spelling out very little.
Werewolf by Night is packaged perfectly as well. From WPIX’s Movie Loft font choices to the Sunday Night Special Presentation bumper, it’s purposely evoking both the monster movie marathon vibes of over-air TV before cable’s full ascension and the thrill of a network special event. That Werewolf only resembles those things superficially once the movie begins is beside the point. It sets the mood so effectively that director Michael Giacchino and writers Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron’s riff on Hammer horror, The Most Dangerous Game, and the “dance for the deceased powerful man’s delight” genre go down smooth and nostalgic without a saccharine aftertaste.
The film’s post-climax homage to Wizard of Oz is perhaps the only misstep. Not because it ruins anything or feels presumptuous. It just seems so superfluous. Wild at Heart this is not and nothing in the past 40 minutes builds a thematic foundation for the out-of-the-blue evocation. Some aspects of it nicely suggest the feeling of accepting and moving beyond one’s past. Those would likely work even better without that classic film’s shadow.
Werewolf is the rare MCU offering that exists more or less on its own. Some may bristle at this—“Does it even count?!”—while others may rejoice—“About damn time.” It’d be a mistake, though, to treat this as anything more than what’s on-screen. To load it down with arguments about the MCU is to miss the simple bloody fun of a secret werewolf, a daughter trying to do better, a noble monster, and a group of deluded monster hunters stalking each other through the ruins of a foggy backyard labyrinth. Of course, the MCU can and should do more of these diversions from the path, but save that for the features page later. While watching Werewolf by Night, just enjoy the commitment to bit, and the trio of Harris, Garcia Bernal, and Donnelly’s couldn’t be more different or perfect performances of the material.
Werewolf by Night is scaring up fun on Disney+ now.