Werewolf by Night
By Zac Goldstein
When Ulysses Bloodstone, leader of a group of monster hunters, dies, the other group members are enlisted to compete in a hunt to determine who will replace him and wield the powerful Bloodstone. The aspirants include Ulysses’s daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly), who had forsaken her family’s legacy, as well as Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), who boasts an impressive track record and harbors more than a few secrets. As the hunt gets underway, it soon becomes clear that nothing is as it seems, including the monster the group is chasing.
Prolific composer Michael Giacchino’s directorial debut is billed as a Marvel Studios Special Presentation, occupying a middle ground between a feature-length film and an episode of a Marvel/Disney Plus streaming series. Tonally and aesthetically, however, it stands apart from either. Shot in black and white, it is a faithful homage to the monster movies of old. Far from being a mere nostalgia act, however, Werewolf by Night is a stylistic spectacle that highlights lesser-known Marvel characters.
The film’s 53-minute runtime is both a blessing and a curse. Werewolf by Night is tautly paced with nary a wasted moment, let alone a superfluous subplot or ham-handed declaration of theme (I’m looking at you, She-Hulk). However, because we follow them so briefly, we do not get to know most of the movie’s characters very well. The stakes will always be lower for red shirts led to slaughter than they will be for fan favorites biting the dust.
Despite these confines, however, Bernal and Donnelly do a decent job of fleshing their characters out. Bernal’s Russell is enigmatic, and though he is not the tortured soul of his comic book counterpart, he has more depth and morality than his initial appearance suggests. Donnelly exudes a cool competence verging on boredom at times, but this façade crumbles when she finds herself face-to-face with a monster she did not expect. As Elsa’s stepmother Verussa, Harriet Sansom Harris hams it up with aplomb, her demonstrativeness a throwback to the old monster flicks that inspired this one. “Ted” also makes quite an impression, but to say more would be to spoil one of the movie’s best-kept secrets.
Style, however, is where Werewolf by Night really shines. The use of black-and-white is striking, and it allows the bright red Bloodstone (the only bit of color throughout much of the run time) to take on a grandly sinister aura. It also helps mask the film’s brutality as Werewolf by Night is considerably gorier than typical Marvel fare. Practical effects rather than copious CGI further establish the movie’s old-school bona fides. While Giacchino shows surprising flair from the director’s chair, he is still equally adept at his day job: the film’s score is a perfect fit for its mood.
If the worst that can be said for Werewolf by Night is that it is too short, then its creators must be doing something right. Don’t go looking for the reality-bending visuals of a Doctor Strange or the further development of Marvel’s increasingly complex interconnected mythology here. Do enjoy it on its own terms: a brief bit of distinctively rendered scary fun.