The Marvel House Style Comes for “Werewolf By Night”

Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is where the wheels have started to come off the cart for me. With new series and movies seemingly every few weeks and too many of them playing out like advertisements for other series and movies (looking at you, Loki), the projects that grab hold of me these days are the ones that promise something new, something different, something weird.

Enter Werewolf by Night. Announced just one month ago and released to Disney+ last Friday, the 50-minute Halloween short is the uber-franchise’s first foray into bringing Marvel’s line of 70s horror comics into the MCU fold. Presented in black and white, the trailer promised a stylistic homage to the Universal and Hammer horror movies that inspired its comic book forebears and all the stylized, campy horror fun that implies. The results are, at least for me, uneven. While there’s plenty of old school horror fun to be had in Werewolf¸ it stays a little too close to the Marvel house style.

Marvel Studios

Werewolf by Night opens with the world’s best monster hunters gathered for the funeral of deceased monster hunting legend Ulysses Bloodstone. But before they can pour a toast to old Bloodsy (as I assume his friends called him), his wife Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris) announces the stakes of this funeral are going to be a wee bit higher than most. The hunters will be released into a labyrinth to kill a fearsome monster lurking within. Whoever slays the beast will be gifted the Marvel’s new Important Magic Rock, the Bloodstone. Among the hunters are Ulysses’ Prodigal Daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly), and Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal and yes, that’s the character’s name), each of them harboring dark secrets and complex reasons for joining the competition that might spell doom for their fellow hunters…and for each other.

To be sure, Werewolf by Night wears its classic horror influences on its sleeve. The film opens with a gorgeous 30’s-style title card right out of a Universal picture. Grain and reel change marks have been added to the digital footage, and the score (courtesy of Michael Giacchino, also directing) calls to mind b-movie bombast. Most significantly, Werewolf by Night uses practical effects for to bring to bring its monsters to life. The titular werewolf by night has presence onscreen that simply can’t be faked with mocap and CGI, especially in black and white. The same can be said for Werewolf by Night’s version of Man-Thing, which has a welcome rubbery texture and heft to it. The best Marvel projects can endear an audience to the wildest characters put to page, and the fact that Gael García Bernal and Laura Donnelly have a physical entity to act alongside makes Man-Thing (or Ted, as he prefers to be called) an instant winner.

Marvel Studios

And yet, I couldn’t help but want some more from these horror trappings.

For as good as these classic horror elements are, they’re a little lopsided in their distribution. See, the thing about Universal horror movies is that they operate just differently enough from most Marvel movies that not all the pieces fit as nicely together as you’d like. To that end, a lot of the standard elements of phase 4 Marvel projects stand in stark contrast to their gothic surroundings.

Even when they’re in full color, the Marvel Disney+ projects tend to favor a desaturated look. This works fine for a show like Loki that’s wrapped in early 70s earthtones, but for a project like Werewolf it means that some characters lack a vital visual pop. Made up with dark eye makeup and white facial markings, Bernal’s Jack Russell is a ringer for a Boris Karloff character, while Laura Donnelly’s Elsa registers like an iPhone photo with an Instagram filter placed over it.

 Likewise, the cinematography is somewhat lacking. With the exception of a few memorable shots –the werewolf transformation in particular rules—Werewolf favors the medium shot combat and shot-reverse-shot conversations of a lot of Disney+ originals, effective at conveying action and dialogue clearly, but without much pizzazz. The horror classics of the 30s and 40s cribbed from German expressionism to incredible effect that this special could use. I’m starting to think we were all too hard on Kenneth Branagh for using all those Dutch angles in Thor.

Marvel Studios

I’ve discussed on this very site that the key to dialogue in Universal and Hammer dialogue that’s too often missing from would-be successors is that it’s functional and it’s sincere. Those movies rarely ran longer than 70 to-80 minutes, so you had to convey information quickly and clearly. If your monster or madman was going to get a little purple with their dialogue, they had damn well better deliver it with conviction. They had their comic relief, sure, but you’re not going to find Van Helsing or Henry Frankenstein making quips. Sincere, straight-ahead dialogue is not Marvel’s bread and butter. As a result, the snarky jokes and asides that are hallmark of most Marvel joints end up sucking the air out of the room, breaking the once-upon-a-midnight-dreary atmosphere the visuals conjure up. For example, the problem with having a character taunt another with a “you? not so much” semi-joke as they face being ripped to shreds by a werewolf is that it breaks the tension of the scene but doesn’t stretch it far enough into comedy like Young Frankenstein. Instead, it just thuds somewhere in the middle.

Werewolf by Night feels like an at-times too cautious step into interesting new territory for the MCU. It’s proof positive of the magic that can happen when Disney and Marvel invest in good practical effects and have a little fun outside the boundaries of their house style, but I can’t help but wish they took a surer step forward. With Marvel horror projects like Blade out on the horizon, they could stand to get a little freakier. Werewolf by Night loosens Marvel’s tie, but it doesn’t take it off. It’s a project that shows that Marvel is willing to raise its glass to a new world of gods, but it’s still a little unsure about the monsters.

Marvel Studios
Oh man, I didn’t even get to talk about the Flaming Tuba Guy

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