Review by C.J. Bunce
If you’re like many people, you probably barely have enough time to keep up with the movies and TV series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and maybe have only heard of things like Marvel’s What If? or its One-Shot series of shorts. And you’d be forgiven for skipping over the rather oddly marketed black and white movie Werewolf by Night, now streaming on Disney+. But don’t miss this one–it’s perfect for a lights out, late night watch with the whole gang, even mature kids who know the difference between fantasy and reality. Of four dozen-plus MCU shows, it may just make your Top 10 (it did mine). The series even has one of our favorite Marvel characters from the dark side of Marvel Comics, and I’m not talking about the title’s werewolf himself.
That character is the monster of this Universal Monsters-inspired show. Man-Thing, the 1971 Marvel creation that looks a bit like Cthulhu, best known for a classic comic book monthly written by the late, great Steve Gerber, but also known for creators over the years including Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Howard Chaykin, John Buscema, Gray Morrow, Len Wein, Rich Buckler, Jim Starlin, and even Neal Adams. Who hasn’t seen the sprawling title on the special Giant-Size Man-Thing issues? And you may have seen Man-Thing on the screen before, in one of Marvel’s last pre-MCU movies, the Rated R 2005 film Man-Thing, which portrays a different look at the character.
In Werewolf by Night, Man-Thing is the sympathetic target of monster hunters, a bit Stanley and his Monster, more Snuffleupagus and Eeyore than DC’s Swamp Thing–whose origin he shares to some extent and who he is frequently compared to. But that sympathetic nature also conjures similar audience feelings for other classic monsters, like Frankenstein, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Carey Jones, the actor behind the giant Wookiee in The Book of Boba Fett, a Predator in Predators, and an alien on The Orville, provides a superb re-creation of Man-Thing, pulling the character off the page and onto the (silver) screen thanks to his CGI motion capture work.
The hunters include Gael Garcia Bernal as Jack Russell, Laura Donnelly as Elsa Bloodstone (played here as a ringer for Marvel’s Jessica Jones), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home producer and Mohawk punk on the bus Kirk R. Thatcher as Jovan, Leonardo Nam as Liorn, Daniel J. Watts as Barasso, and Eugenie Bondurant (who played the Devidian woman in the Star Trek: The Next Generation story Time’s Arrow) as Azarel. It’s all a bit like Clue/Cluedo, with Harriet Sansom Harris as a particularly wretched, witchy, vintage horror brand of cackling host.
The only thing separating Werewolf by Night from the Universal Monster movies is the studio. The endearing nature of Man-Thing fits perfectly within the Universal Monster pantheon–and I’d wager if you showed Werewolf by Night along with the classic versions of Frankenstein (1931), The Wolfman (1966), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Mummy (1932), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Dracula (1931) to anyone who had never seen them before, they would not see Werewolf by Night as anything different. It even has classic styled opening titles, deliberate 1920s-1930s horror movie pacing, and at 52 minutes its length is consistent with those classic horror films, all filmed in glorious black and white.
Hawkeye writer Heather Quinn delivers a compelling script despite the short time allotted, and it’s surprisingly low on occult references for a horror film. The biggest surprise may be the 21st century’s most versatile and pervasive movie composer–Michael Giacchino–stepping into the big chair as director in his first feature film effort. Of course the musical score is a big part of this picture–how couldn’t it be with the Star Trek, Up, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Spider-Man, Jurassic World, and Thor composer leading the way? He leans on the music at times, but so did the creators of the Universal Monster movies. Giacchino delivers an impressive freshman film here, which could easily serve as a springboard for Marvel’s own version of DC Comics’ Justice League Dark. It’s a great reason to bring back Ghost Rider, adding to the films featuring those darker, fringe characters like Venom and Deadpool, with a new Blade just around the corner. And Werewolf by Night is a much better starting point than the dreadful Morbius.
Then again, it could all be a set-up for a new launch of Disneyland rides, as the Ulysses Bloodstone automaton is something straight out of the amusement parks.
This would have been a fun one for a big theater movie screen. If you still watch those obscure Turner Classic Movies monster movies that run every October, or are a fan of the big Universal Monster movies, you don’t want to miss Werewolf by Night. It’s streaming now on Disney+.