Marvel Studios’ Werewolf by Night is a television special that was released on Disney+ on Oct. 7, and is a single-episode story about what happens when a group of monster hunters are gathered together to compete for the ownership of the magical “Bloodstone” after its previous owner passes away. However, one of the monster hunters is not who they say they are.
Part of what initially made Marvel unique and hugely successful was the interconnected universe of superhero movies, but 14 years after the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, I feel that the old formula has become stale and predictable. Many of the projects of Marvel’s Phase Four now seem to involve breaking into new genres and mediums.
Werewolf by Night is inspired by horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and it beautifully achieves that classic tone and style. The most striking aspect of the movie is that it was almost entirely shot in black and white. More than just a gimmick, the filmmakers used the monochrome to their advantage. It adds extra emphasis to every shadow and glint of moonlight, immersing us in its world. Blood is rendered inky black, and warm candlelight turns chillingly cold – the effect is macabre and elegant all at once.
The only color that breaks the black and white visuals is the crimson red of the Bloodstone. While I am undoubtedly a bit tired of Marvel’s obsession with glowing magical stones, they did a good job of giving the Bloodstone a strong individual visual presence. It serves as a stunning spot of vibrancy in every scene and feels unnervingly out of place.
The special also has wonderful cinematography. In the absence of color, the filmmakers found new ways to make the shots interesting. They included many symmetrical shots and slightly longer takes.
They also created a recurring motif of zooming in on gates, doorways and hallways, which increased the sense of tension created in many scenes. Villains don’t just come bursting out of nowhere. Instead, we are forced to watch places where they might enter, held in chilling suspense until finally the monster is revealed.
Additionally the special includes extensive use of practical effects. The werewolf costume looks to be entirely practical, adding to its horror and concrete presence. More than anything else, this is what solidifies it in the realm of other classic monster movies.
For one, the werewolf transformation scene is truly thrilling. It begins with a heartbreaking look of terror and desperation on the man’s face as he realizes he’s about to change into a monster. But then the camera turns away, and we don’t see it happen directly, instead focusing entirely on the expression of another character witnessing it. We zoom in slowly and watch her face morph between fear, horror and sheer panic. In the background we see a flashing shadow of the man on the wall as he transforms into a stop-motion display of agony, limbs cracking as his strangled screams become snarls and roars.
The inhuman horror of the monster is wonderfully juxtaposed against the story’s whimsical cast of characters. Though they don’t have a huge role in the movie, the monster hunters are an eclectic mix of people who range from a rampaging Scottish warrior to a pale David Bowie-like figure. The protagonist is played by Gael García Bernal, and he is an absolute delight in the role. The character is gentle and sincere, and Bernal plays the full range of emotions brilliantly in this short television special.
The best aspect of the characters is that we never get too much backstory from them. We get hints of interesting pasts, but for the most part, they remain a mystery. The special doesn’t have the time to get into it, and it doesn’t attempt to. Instead, it creates strong characters that stand firmly in the present but still feel like they have a life outside of the scope of the story.
After experiencing the beautiful cinematography and gory horror in this special, I expected it to be the work of a pre-established horror film director. However, Werewolf by Night was directed by Michael Giacchino — he’s the man behind the music from such films as The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up.
He composed the music for this special as well, and it seamlessly integrates into every scene. It has a style like old horror movies such as Psycho, including lots of piercing high strings and ominous horn blows. The music contributes heavily to the ambiance of the special and the emotion it creates.
Werewolf by Night is not a groundbreaking film, but it skillfully takes inspiration from classic movies to create a fun, immersive experience. It’s intensely rooted in an atmosphere of horror and the macabre, and it effectively breaks from the formula of other Marvel projects. Werewolf by Night is a howling success, and I highly recommend watching it during this wonderfully spooky season.