Over the past 14 years, Marvel Studios has become one of the most bankable brands in entertainment, such that anything bearing its name is all but guaranteed a generous viewership. Executive Producer Kevin Feige has maintained the studio’s success through careful quality control, giving its shared universe of films and television shows a stylistic consistency at the cost of ever being genuinely exciting. Even their most celebrated works suffer from the moment when they inevitably go “full Marvel,” and a director’s individual voice or creative risks are upstaged by video game cutscenes pumped out from the studio’s infamously overtaxed visual effects pipeline. It happens in the third act of every movie and the final two episodes of every event series (the most glaring examples of this being in Black Panther and WandaVision, respectively). There seems to be a fear amongst the Marvel higher-ups that their audience will lose confidence in them if even a single story ends without obvious digital doubles of two characters with visually similar powers clashing in front of a processor-melting CGI backdrop.
But, with his new Disney+ Halloween special, director/composer Michael Giacchino seems to have found a way to (mostly) avoid Marvel’s Achilles heel: by wrapping up the whole thing in an hour. Werewolf By Night is a charming tribute not only to the pulpy horror comics on which it’s based but to the scary and silly classic cinema that a generation of film lovers grew up watching late at night on local television. All that’s missing is a horror host and a few commercial breaks.
Filmed in black and white, announced by a 1930s-style title card, and expressionistically lit by cinematographer Zoë White, Werewolf By Night mashes up the visual language and tone of Universal and Hammer horror, employing deliberately dated-looking camera setups and design sensibilities. (A sincere tip of the hat to production designer Maya Shimoguchi for making what was certainly an expensive product look appropriately low-budget.) The acting is heightened, the score is broad and sweeping, and every macabre beat is also at least a little funny. It’s far more cute than it is scary, and that seems to be the aim. The retro fun persists for the entire runtime, interrupted only sparingly by the odd glaring visual effect or out of place bit of modern fight choreography. Its old-school makeup and prop gags are at odds with its CGI blood splatters and augmented creature effects, but never enough to spoil the mood. Even at its climax, Werewolf By Night never goes Full Marvel.
The special features a small cast led by Gael García Bernal (lately of my beloved Station Eleven) and Laura Donnelly (The Nevers) as two of the six monster hunters invited to commemorate the death of Ulysses Bloodstone, a legend in their field whose signature weapon will be inherited by whichever guest slays the deadly creature hiding on the premises. Donnelly plays Bloodstone’s errant daughter Elsa, who’s come to put to rest some family business. Bernal is Jack, a quiet and friendly man who is apparently a very prolific killer, though none of his competitors have heard of him. The other hunters are mostly silent, though there are scene-stealing moments from Jovan, a boisterous Scot played by Kirk R. Thatcher, an actor, director, and Muppets collaborator who you may recognize as the punk with the boombox in Star Trek IV. But it’s unquestionably veteran character actress Harriet Sansom Harris who walks away with the show as Verusa, the Bloodstone widow and host of this bizarre funeral. Harris brings exactly the right level of Addams Family camp to the proceedings (she was, in fact, in 1993’s Addams Family Values) and sets the tone perfectly. I do not lament Werewolf By Night’s scant 54-minute runtime, except for the want of more hammy Harriet Samson Harris.
Indeed, it’s the very fact that the stakes are set at “TV Movie” (both in the narrative and financial sense) that makes this Marvel Special Presentation feel, well, special. It’s not the first Marvel Studios work to begin as a passion project, but it is the first that appears to remain a passion project from start to finish. Werewolf By Night is only Michael Giacchino’s second live-action short as a director, and he possesses both the gusto of an untested artist looking to show his worth and the playful abandon of an amateur with nothing to lose, because he is both. At age 54, he’s got an Emmy, an Oscar, and has composed the music for four of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time. He does not need this job. Nor, frankly, does Marvel need this special to be a runaway success or cultural phenomenon. It’s a goof, a one-off, not something to build a franchise around. There is freedom in that, and a joy that shows through in the final product. Werewolf By Night is a cheap thrill, an enjoyable and ultimately disposable good time, and in a way, that describes the spirit of classic Marvel comics better than any of the studio’s blockbuster epics.