While most other streaming series could be improved with fewer episodes, Marvel takes the opposite tack with Werewolf by Night, a standalone Halloween-themed event that clocks in at less than an hour, even though it probably would have benefited from running twice as long. A throwback to classic Universal monster movies, this black-and-white small-screen special—hitting Disney+ on Oct. 7—has a clever conceit, chilly atmosphere, and droll sense of humor that suggests it might have worked quite well as a full-length feature. In its present form, though, it remains a bite-size treat that MCU diehards will find difficult to resist.
The behind-the-camera debut of award-winning blockbuster film and television composer Michael Giacchino, Werewolf by Night spends mere moments laying out the lore of its corner of the Marvel universe, explaining that the planet’s “darkness” is home to both monsters and those who hunt them. Central to the latter’s mission is the Bloodstone, an ancient weapon that has the power to destroy even the most fearsome creature, and it’s now up for grabs since its most recent owner, Ulysses Bloodstone, has died. His memorial is the setting for a gathering of global monster hunters eager to both pay their respects and to claim the relic as their own. Among them is Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), who shows up decked out in a swanky black suit and with dark, sallow eyes and strange ritualistic lines on his face, which he tells another attendee are his means of honoring his ancestors.
How Jack earned himself an invitation to this shindig is left conspicuously unexplained by Werewolf by Night, but he nevertheless makes himself comfortable in the grand chamber where everyone congregates for the forthcoming ceremony. That’s overseen by Verusa (Harriet Sansom Harris), Ulysses’ devoted widow, who’s not very pleased by news that the evening’s rite has been crashed by Ulysses’ daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly), a young woman who apparently had no use for her father’s training and turned her back on assuming his mantle as her natural birthright. Once assembled, Jack and Elsa, along with four other formidable monster slayers, are treated to the strangest funeral imaginable, with Ulysses’ casket cranked open so his corpse can animatronically move while a recording of his voice plays—a puppeteer-style resurrection that’s just the right side of bizarre.
Werewolf by Night is awash in stark chiaroscuro, with shadowy corners illuminated by candlelight or flashes of lightning, and its score is similarly baroque and ominous. Giacchino knows his old-school maneuvers, fixating on the mounted monster heads around this central chamber to heighten the macabre mood. Moreover, the premise of Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron’s screenplay is a strong one: a captured monster will be set free on the estate grounds this evening, the Bloodstone affixed to its body (making it both weaker and angrier), and the monster hunter that slays it will claim the artifact for his or herself. Thus, they set out into a misty forest—and, beyond it, a strange maze-like garden of concrete structures, tall grass, and imposing mausoleums—to beat their adversaries to the beast and their coveted prize.
The first jokey twist of Werewolf by Night is that the hunters almost immediately take up arms against one another, deciding that eliminating their competitors is a surefire way to boost their chances of success. More central to the proceedings, however, is the revelation that Jack is on chummy terms with their target, who turns out to be Man-Thing, the classic creature from Marvel’s Savage Tales. A hulking, swampy behemoth with a trio of tentacles hanging from its face, Man-Thing—otherwise known as Ted—is Jack’s real reason for coming to these Bloodstone festivities, as he’s determined to save his friend. To achieve this, he eventually strikes a bargain with Elsa in which, for her assistance in bringing Man-Thing to safety, he’ll deliver her the Bloodstone. Which would be fine, if not for one teensy complication that arises after they’ve seemingly achieved their goal: Jack is not totally human.
This bombshell will only rattle those who haven’t read the title Werewolf by Night, which is also Jack’s comic-book nickname. A lycanthrope in the company of those who covet his destruction, Jack finds himself being forcibly turned into that which he cannot control during a finale that Giacchino sets up with the ideal amount of mounting anticipation; the slow zoom into Elsa’s terrified face as Jack’s transformation plays out in shadow against the wall behind her is a thing of sinister beauty. At the same time, the director doesn’t skimp on the werewolf goods, having Jack break free from bondage to tear his way through a collection of enemies, all as Elsa concurrently clashes with her nasty stepmother. By the time the two of them are done, Werewolf by Night has indulged in throat slashings, sword blows to the forehead, and other assorted carnage, its camera lens coated in blood—making this, for all intents and purposes, the first true R-rated Marvel affair (even if it is technically rated TV-14).
Werewolf by Night thrives on its homage-y aesthetics, which extend to a werewolf design that subtly recalls Michael Landon’s hairy alter ego in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The true ace up its sleeve, however, is Bernal, who embodies Jack with a mysteriousness that keeps not only his motivations and true nature in doubt, but also his underlying personality. It’s clear that Jack has a fundamentally good, caring heart (heck, he locks himself away during full moons for everyone’s protection), and yet there’s something haunted about Bernal’s portrayal that hints at an intriguingly unshakable torment. Bernal’s protagonist is at once easy to understand and tough to completely decipher, and consequently, a character with whom it would have been nice to spend additional time. This conundrum both benefits the show (i.e., you always aim to leave them wanting more) and makes one feel like the proceedings are too abbreviated, and that there’s more to explore in this MCU niche.
It’s not clear why the studio decided to spare only 53 minutes on this Halloween venture, especially when its premise could have easily sustained an additional half-hour’s worth of material. Then again, one likely shouldn’t complain about the rare Marvel (or TV, in general) effort that ends before it wears out its welcome.