I will watch the rest of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law eventually, because I am enjoying the series, but first I decided to watch Marvel‘s one-shot Werewolf by Night special, because it’s not a lengthy commitment, but a single 53-minute TV-movie. And frankly, I find it refreshing that Marvel is still able to make standalone movies that are not three hours long. If your life is too busy to commit to lengthy series or epic movies, Werewolf by Night is the perfect spooky snack.
Werewolf by Night is based on the eponymous horror comic from the early 1970s, based in turn on a 1953 horror comic story of the same name from Marvel‘s Atlas Comics period.
Now I have to admit that I’m not a specialist in US horror comics in general and the horror side of the Marvel Universe in particular. I have no idea why I never took to US horror comics, since they offer the kind of more gothic horror that I usually like. But while I have read some EC Comics, I was never tempted to buy the huge beautiful reprint volume of vintage Tales from the Crypt and other EC Comics horror stories that my local comic shop used to carry. I suspect part of the reason is that I resented 1950s horror comics in general and EC Comics in particular for bringing about the Comics Code Authority and knee-capping all US mainstream comics, not just the horror and crime ones that Frederick Wertham and the usual busybodies objected to. Though come to think of it, Frederick Wertham objected to everything, even fairly innocuous superhero comics.
Another aspect might be that during my most active comic reading time, I wanted one thing and one thing only from US comics and that’s superheroes. For any other genre, I turned to European comics, particularly the Franco-Belgian ones. But European comics didn’t do superheroes, while American comics specialised in them. So the 1970s horror comics (when the Comics Code was relaxed enough that horror comics became possible again) by Marvel, DC and Warren didn’t supply what I wanted from US comics, namely superheroes. And because I knew about the history of the Comics Code, I expected them to be watered down horror compared to the 1950s stuff and had zero interest in watered down horror.
And so I only came across Marvel‘s horror characters, when they crossed over with their superhero characters. I do know who Man-Thing, Dracula, Morbius (now a very bad movie), Ghost-Rider (now a very pricy crowdfunding project) or Blade are, of course, and I even own a Comics Spain Man-Thing (or at least a Man-Thing knock-off, since I don’t think Comics Spain‘s monster figures were licensed*) figure. But I never read these characters’ solo titles and most of the Marvel horror comics had been cancelled anyway by the time I started reading Marvel comics. So I don’t have a lot of connection to these characters. Nor did I know that Marvel was making a Werewolf by Night TV-special, until the trailer dropped last month. I’m sure the special had been announced earlier, I just missed it among the plethora of Marvel announcements.
The trailer looked good, however, and since I found myself with some free time this weekend, I decided to invest it into watching Werewolf by Night. Nor was I disappointed, because Werewolf by Night is a lot of fun.
Warning: Spoilers below this point!
After a black and white rendition of the usual Marvel Studios opening, complete with werewolf claws ripping the comic pages, we get a title card in the style of 1930s black and white horror movies. Because Werewolf by Night is not just an homage to the Universal and RKO horror movies of the 1930s, it’s also shot almost entirely in black and white. Of course, this isn’t the first time Marvel has done a film in black and white, the first two episodes of WandaVision are also black and white and for a similar reason, to pay homage to vintage entertainment. Like WandaVision, which used practical effects for the first few episodes, Werewolf by Night also uses make-up effects rather than CGI for its monsters. The result is very effective, because in many ways Werewolf by Night feels like a vintage horror film you find on late night TV. All that’s missing is the “Mumien, Monstren, Mutationen” intro that usually accompanied these films.
The premise of Werewolf by Night is that Ulysses Bloodstone, last in a long line of hereditary monster hunters, has died and that his legacy, the fabled Bloodstone which weakens and can kill monsters, is up for grabs. Ulysses Bloodstone is a character from the Marvel Comics, though not one I’m familiar with. In the comics, Ulysses Bloodstone is a Hyborian Age (Marvel had the Conan licence at the time) barbarian who has a mishap with a meteorite and a monstrous entity intent on conquering Earth. This mishap leaves a blood-red jewel embedded in our hero’s chest, which renders him immortal. The monstrous entity responsible for his predicament escapes and so Ulysses devotes his very long life to hunting him down.
If that story seems familiar, that’s because it is. Because the story of Ulysses Bloodstone and remarkably similar to that of Karl Edward Wagner’s immortal warrior Kane, one of whose adventures just happens to be entitled Bloodstone. Both Ulysses Bloodstone and Karl Edward Wagner’s novel Bloodstone appeared in 1975, but Kane predates Ulysses as a character and first appeared in 1975. And the parallels are simply too glaring to be a coincidence.
Werewolf by Night tweaks the story of Ulysses Bloodstone somewhat. Here he is not immortal – quite obviously since he’s already dead by the beginning of the story – but a member of a family of hereditary monster hunters. And now that Ulysses has finally shuffled off this mortal coil, the Bloodstone is up for grabs. The Bloodstone artefact is also the only thing that’s in colour for most of the film, since it glows a suitably bloody red.
So the would-be inheritors gather at the Bloodstone estate to determine which of them is worthy to inherit the Bloodstone. And how better to determine who is worthy than by staging a competitive monster hunt on the grounds of the estate? The hunt is overseen by Ulysses’ widow – his second wife, it should be noted – Verussa (played by theatre and musical actress Harriet Samson Harris), aided by the Bloodstones’ servant Billy Swan and a bunch of goons with electrical cattle prods.
The gathered monster hunters are a motley and remarkably diverse bunch. There is a black hunter, an Asian hunter, an androgynous looking hunter (portrayed by actress Eugenie Bondurant) and a grizzled bearded white hunter with fifty kills played by Kirk Thatcher, who has a remarkable resume , since he’s a special effects specialist, screenwriter, director of several Muppet movies and also the actor who played the “punk on the bus” in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and reprised that role in season 2 of Star Trek Picard.
Two people also show up at the Bloodstone mansion who don’t seem to belong. One is rather nervous fellow with weird facial make-up named Jack (played by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal) who only gives evasive answers. The other is Elsa Bloodstone (played by Northern Irish actress Laura Donnelly, who also played Jenny Fraser in Outlander), Ulysses’ estranged daughter from his first marriage, who has broken with the family tradition of monster hunting, but has now returned to claim her birthright. Verussa is not happy about this, but won’t deny Elsa either.
Elsa Bloodstone is a character from the comics, though she joined the Marvel canon after I had already stopped reading Marvel comics regularly, so I never encountered her. She seems to have been created to tap into the urban fantasy boom of the early 2000s, when young women dealing with the supernatural were all the rage.
With the players all in place, we and they are treated to a brief address by the reanimated (literally, via a crank) corpse of Ulysses, then the hunt is on. The prize, the Bloodstone, is affixed to the body of the monster to be hunted, which not just weakens the monster, but royally pisses it off. Then the monster and the hunters are set free in a maze-like structure. There are weapons hidden throughout the maze and the hunters are expected to hunt each other as well as the monster.
As a set-up, this is a mix of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Racial Slurs (with bits of “The Superlative Seven” episode of The Avengers – Steed and Peel, not Marvel – thrown in, which was of course a riff on Ten Little Racial Slurs) and the spooky 1932 adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game. The mansion with its glass domed roof and the heads of monsters killed by Ulysses displayed all around the place is also reminiscent of the 1932 The Most Dangerous Game, which was famously shot on the jungle set from King Kong.
As influences for a spooky retro monster hunt film, these are fairly obvious choices. Though Werewolf By Night also reminded me of the West German Edgar Wallace movies of the 1960s, which – though nominally suspense movies – often crossed over into horror territory. The isolated mansion full of secrets and the motley crew of characters with secrets, including a supremely creepy elderly lady, certainly bring to mind several Wallace movies as do some of the costumes such as the hooded robes and masks the monster hunters don at one point and of course the stylish black and white photography, complete with sharp light and dark contrasts and strange camera angles, all influenced by the German expressionist cinema of the Weimar Republic. Outside Germany, the Edgar Wallace films aren’t that well known by the general public, but film buffs and directors often do know them – Quentin Tarantino is supposedly a fan – so I wouldn’t count the Wallace films out as an influence on Werewolf by Night.
Once the hunt has begun, Elsa tussles with Kirk Thatcher and takes out another monster hunter. She also runs into Jack, who does not want to fight her, but tells her that maybe they should just pass each other by. We also uncover Jack’s secret (well, one of them), when he runs into the monster that’s being hunted. Not only does the monster turn out to be Man-Thing, Marvel‘s answer to DC‘s Swamp Thing (though he prefers Ted for obvious reasons), but Man-Thing/Ted also turns out to be a friend of Jack’s. When Ted was captured by the Bloodstones, Jack went after him and infiltrated the monster hunt to rescue him.
At one point, Jack and the injured Elsa wind up hiding out in a stunning Art Deco crypt housing the remains of several generations of Bloodstones. Since Jack accidentally closes the door, which cannot be opened from the inside, they’re trapped – at least until Elsa breaks open one of the sarcophagi, which contains a key, allowing the superstitious inhabitant to escape her tomb after death. Jack binds Elsa’s injured leg and confesses that he just wants to save his friend. Elsa isn’t interested in killing the monster – she just wants the Bloodstone. So Jack and Elsa make a deal. Elsa will help Jack free Ted and escape and gets the Bloodstone in return. Elsa also tells Jack where on the exterior wall to plant an explosive charge, which will allow Jack and Ted to escape.
The plan goes wrong, when Jack accidentally arms the charge too early and has to rush to the wall to attach it, where it promptly falls off. Jack barely manages to duck for cover, when the charge goes up, drawing all the remaining monster hunters. Ted manages to escape through the breach in the wall, while Elsa uses a claw-like implement to remove the Bloodstone from Ted’s back. Jack tries to pick up the stone and promptly collapses, writhing in pain, which is the effect that the Bloodstone has on monsters. Jack may appear human, but he’s not.
Considering that the special is called Werewolf By Night, it’s kind of obvious what Jack is, even if – like me – you’re not very familiar with the respective comic, the backstory of which is explained here.
When Jack comes to again, he finds himself locked in a cage together with Elsa, courtesy of Verussa who considers this the perfect opportunity to get rid both of a pesky stepdaughter and a monster that she believes must be exterminated. Jack assures Elsa that he doesn’t want to hurt anybody and that he always makes sure to lock himself up on the night of the full moon, so he won’t accidentally harm anybody. However, the full moon is still several days away, so Elsa should be quite safe with him. Elsa, however, points out that the Bloodstone can transform Jack into his werewolf form instantly – no full moon needed. And since Jack and Elsa are locked up together, Elsa deduces that this is exactly what Verussa plans to do.
In response, Jack begins to nuzzle Elsa, so he will remember her scent and her as a friend. Then Verussa, her goons and the surviving hunters show up, clad in hooded robes and wearing masks. Jack begs them that if they want to kill him, they should do it while he is in human form, because once he changes, there will be no mercy. Verussa just crackles evilly. She does not believe in mercy and clearly also doesn’t believe that she and her squad of hunters wouldn’t be able to best a werewolf.
So Verussa holds out the Bloodstone and Jack begins to transform. Now CGI and modern make-up effects allow for making very convincing werewolf transformations – the days of lycantropy sufferers hiding behind furniture or rocks and then emerging as fully transformed werewolves are long past (though an episode of Buffy did that as late as the late 1990s, but then Buffy seemed to have a very low budget). And the iconic transformation from An American Werewolf in London, still considered the gold standard of werewolf transformations, is more than forty years old by now. So in short, a movie with the full financial power of Disney and Marvel behind it, could give us a killer werewolf transformation.
Interestingly, however, Werewolf By Night chooses a more subtle and subdued approach than the full bright light transformation from American Werewolf in London. We do get a glimpse of Jack’s hands turning into giant paws and his eyes changing that seems directly inspired by American Werewolf in London, but most of the transformation takes place off-screen and the horror is conveyed via the terrified expression on Elsa’s face, while on the wall behind her we see Jack’s shadow change from man to werewolf.
Personally, I think the more subtle handling transformation is exactly the right choice here. For starters, it fits with the overall retro feel of Werewolf By Night, whereas a full CGI transformation would have broken the retro illusion. Besides, forty-one years after An American Werewolf in London, we know what werewolf transformations look like on screen, because we’ve seen it done so many times that a full-on bright light transformation no longer has the same impact and capacity to shock as it did back in 1981.
Furthermore, the kind of vintage horror movies that Werewolf By Night is trying to evoke here tended to thrive on suggestion rather than showing the horrors outright like movies from the 1970s and beyond. So the more subtle approach is exactly the right one here.
As Jack had warned her, Verussa quickly learns that transforming Jack was a very bad idea. Werewolf Jack manages to grab hold of Verussa through the bars of the cage and proceeds to strangle her. She is saved by the cattle prods of her goons – for now – but Jack has managed to tear through the bars of the cage.
Jack and Elsa now proceed to make short work of the surviving hunters. This is as good a moment as any to note that Werewolf By Night is quite a bit gorier than the usual Marvel movie. There are limbs chopped off, skulls split and blood flows, though thanks to the black and white it’s not as lurid as it normally would be. Considering that Disney and Marvel are very concerned about their family-friendly image, the amount of gore and violence is still unexpected, especially considering that some busybody woman in Texas has freaked out over Hocus Pocus 2, one of Disney+’s other offerings for the spooky season, beleaving that watching the film will unleash hell and the devil upon her home and her family, which would actually be a reason to watch this completely superfluous film. So if some people freak out over Hocus Pocus 2 of all things, how will they react to something like Werewolf By Night?
Jack and Elsa deal with the hunters, but Verussa uses the Bloodstone to weaken Jack, whereupon her cattle-prod wielding goons proceed to beat him up. Elsa stops Verussa, Jack regains his strength and deals with the goons. He launches himself at Elsa, but let’s go off her at the last moment, because he recognise her scent and her as a friend. Jack then flees out into the night.
Elsa is left alone with the furious Verussa who grabs a shotgun and tries to shoot her. However, Ted arrives like a Man-Thing ex machina and kills Verussa. “He went that way”, Elsa says to Ted, since he’s clearly looking for his pal Jack. So Ted takes off after Jack.
Exhausted, Elsa settles down in an armchair, while butler Billy Swan, the only other survivor of the night, brings her a drink. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” begins to play on a grammophone and Elsa pulls the Bloodstone out of her pocket. From the Bloodstone, colour spreads across the screen, turning the film from black and white to colour.
The subtext is not exactly subtle here. Ulysses and the other monster hunters used to view the world in black and white terms. Humans are good and monsters are evil and must be exterminated. However, while Jack and Ted are monsters, they are not evil. And while Ulysses, Verussa and the hunters may have been human, they were evil.
Interestingly, this also mirrors how the portrayal of werewolves, vampires and other classic monsters has changed over the decades and how monsters were gradually humanised and given a point of view, until they became viable romantic prospects in the early 21st century. Though unlike vampires, who were portrayed as unambiguously evil well into the 1990s, werewolves have been portrayed as cursed and unhappy souls since the 1920s. “The Werewolf of Ponkert” by H. Warner Munn, the first werewolf story written from the POV of a werewolf, was published in Weird Tales in 1925 and spawned several sequels. The Wolf Man, the classic horror movie which invented much of what is considered werewolf lore these days from whole cloth, came out in 1941 and also portrays its werewolf Larry Talbot as a tortured soul. That said, tortured souls or not, werewolves still inevitably died at the end of their stories well into the 1980s – An American Werewolf in London ends with the titular werewolf killed. However, the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (which had a great werewolf character played by a young and hot David Selby**) and horror comics of the 1970s like Man-Thing, Swamp Thing and Werewolf by Night did a lot to humanise monsters and eventually paved the way for the urban fantasy and paranormal romance boom of the 2000s.
Old style monster hunters like the various Bloodstones except for Elsa, who exterminate monsters on sight, no longer fit into the 21st century, where we have had humanised monsters for decades now. In fact, Buffy was pushing it 25 years ago, which is probably why I never liked Buffy, even back when Joss Whedon was considered god and disliking Buffy a terrible heresy. A movie where monsters are evil and must be exterminated – whether cursed souls or not – belongs firmly into the black and white era. The switch to colour, albeit the weirdly faded colour of an unrestored old movie or TV show, at the end clearly signifies that we are in a different world now, where monsters can be villains, heroes or just ordinary guys trying to get by.
Talking of which, at the very end we see Jack waking up in human form and in colour in a makeshift camp in the woods. Since the transformation destroyed his clothes, he is wrapped in one of the robes worn by the monster hunters. Ted is there as well and he’s even made coffee.
Werewolf By Night was a satisfying one-shot movie, though there is the possibility of a sequel. It’s also almost entirely separate from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe – the only link is an illustration of the Avengers in a book early on – and can be enjoyed even by people who’ve never seen a Marvel movie before.
I’ve said before that the greatest strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it’s vast and that you can tell all sorts of stories in it. Of course, you can theoretically say the same about the Star Wars universe and yet Star Wars has struggled to tell stories beyond the saga of the Skywalker family. Marvel, on the other hand, is not afraid to experiment and give us technothrillers (Iron Man), WWII movies (Captain America: The First Avenger), epic fantasy (Thor), gonzo space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor Ragnarok), 1970s style political thrillers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), heist movies (Ant-Man), martial arts flicks (Shang-Chi), teen drama (Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel), plucky female lawyer show (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law) and even sitcoms (WandaVision). The most recent Marvel movies have been a tad lacklustre, whereas most of the Disney+ offerings have been less afraid to try something new, probably because the stakes are lower, even with a very expensive TV show.
Werewolf By Night is another example of Marvel trying something different, namely making a full foray into horror – after dipping in their toes in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. And not just any old horror either, but gothic retro style horror. The result is a lot of fun, especially if like me you prefer pre-1970 horror to later takes on the genre.
I do hope we see more shorter standalones from Marvel (and maybe Star Wars), which are not only less of a time commitment than a TV series or a two to three hour movie. Especially since such specials are the perfect place to experiment with new characters, genres and styles.
*For that matter, why do we know next to nothing about Comics Spain, maker of some of the best PVC figurines ever? I did find a couple of YouTube videos in Spanish, but nothing in English. And no one seems to know what happened to the company, they just vanished sometime in the 1990s.
**I had a huge crush on David Selby as a teenager, though not for his role Dark Shadows, which I had no idea existed at the time, but as Richard Channing from Falcon Crest, which my Mom and Grandma watched religiously. I’m not even sure why I fell for Richard so hard, since he was an older character compared to Lorenzo Lamas and William Moses, who would have been more appropriate crushes, and supposed to be a villain besides, but then in the 1980s iteration of “rich people being awful” soap operas, the villains were inevitably the most interesting characters.