"...a veritable feast for the eyes"

Marvel's Dark Universe-"It's Alive!"

(110322) For a long time, all the projects involving Marvelís pure horror characters in both film and the printed page (such as the Nicholas Cage Ghost Rider films, the bloodless Morbius film and the current Midnight Suns comic) have been major disappointments. I admit that the first two Blade films and this years Disney Plus Moon Knight show were both quite good. I've gone into greater depth on Marvel's comic and film depictions of the horror genre in my essay series: "Why Horror Fans should Hate Marvel Comics". With this preamble an a a few qualifications, the new Disney Plus Werewolf by Night special bucks the trend creating a well mounted, spine-tingling terrifying triumph. My biggest complaint is that at 53 minutes, it is far too short, and I wanted to see more development of all of the main characters. I would have gladly watched a five-hour version of this story.

Werewolf by Night is an imaginative, exciting, and action-packed Marvel TV project that dips more deeply into the horror genre than any other Marvel production including Moon Knight and Doctor Strange and the Multi-Verse of Madness. The film is much richer than it has to be, and it might be the finest Marvel TV project since Jessica Jones. It puts many of the recent conventional Phase 4 Marvel superhero shows like Falcon and Winter Soldier and She Hulk to shame, making them look like kidís stuff.

The movie was directed by Michael Giachinno, who is best known for creating award winning scores for films like
UP and Ratatouille. His atmospheric score for this film is perfect, and he also proves here that he has serious directing chops. I especially liked how he handled the less is more transformation scene towards the end of the film which shows a Val Lewton like restraint. If Marvel does any future horror cross-over's, he would be the perfect choice.

The tele-film hints right away that we are going to see something different when we see the traditional Marvel banner filled with superheroes then the screen shot looks like it was torn apart by unseen animal claws followed by ominous ancient sounding music. The film then depicts pages from an ancient book that shows monsters including a possible vampire who resembles Varney, the first vampire in the Marvel comics universe, and a Bigfoot or Wendigo that a hunter killed and the weapons he used to kill them. We are told that the hunter is the recently deceased, Ulysses Bloodstone, the father of, Elisa, the lead female character in the film. We hear his voice emanating from an animatronic doll which resembles the crypt creeper and even shares his macabre sense of humor.

The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal, the superb Mexican actor who was in several classic Spanish language films including Bad Education, Amors Perros and Y Tu Mamma Tambien as the title character. Although he does not resemble the comic character much, Bernal shines as Jack Russell (like in the dog get it?). Bernalís quiet performance has dramatic weight and his character is mysterious, enigmatic yet sympathetic. Some people might complain about the ethnicity switch but unlike the other times Marvel did this (like in the case of the Ancient One and donít get me started on Namor) this time making the main character Hispanic and giving him a Day of the Dead makeup look makes him more potentially interesting than his comic counterpart.

Russell is part of a collection of monster hunters who gather together on a special tournament, but no one knows he is also a monster (presumably he was a werewolf when he created such a big death count). The same basic idea of a bunch of people that secretly contains a werewolf among them was also used in the Amicus cult film: This Beast Must Die, a cross between a Hammer horror film and an Agatha Christie story. The hunters were assembled by Verusa, the widow of Ulysses (character actress, Harriet Sanson Harris.) The group is asked to hunt down a monster who has the powerful blood stone which once belonged to Ulysses.

Werewolf by Night features several longtime Marvel horror characters and Jack has a few friends in the monster community. Elisa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly, the Irish actor from The Nevers) is the daughter of Ulysses, a monster hunter with expert fighting skills on par with the late Natasha Romanoff. Originally the Marvel version was a Buffy rip-off, but this filmís version of her is based more on Warren Ellisís more interesting incarnation of the character which appeared in the entertaining Next Wave comic. She is the character that we probably identify most with the others coming off as megalomaniacal slime balls. She also serves as a potential love interest for Jack. Jack also has an unlikely friendship with the shambling more plant than animal muck monster: Man-thing, whose appearance is the undisputed high point of the film. He is an extremely impressive combo of vines, moss, and roots with just enough semblance of humanity to make him likeable, He looks great, moves great and is guaranteed to sell a million action figures. It is an infinitely more effective depiction of the swamp monster than the one we saw in the barely released pre-MCU Sci-Fi channel film.

The other monster hunters are a bit less memorable, barely fleshed out, and they sometimes border on being generic. There is Azrael, (Eugenie Bondarunt) a trans member who resembles the singer, Klaus Nomi; an Asian martial arts guy with a cross bow, Liorn (Leonard Lam); an African American, Barasso, and Jovan, a bearded Scotsman Jovan (played by Kirk Thatcher the punk on the bus in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). All of the hunters are pitted against each other in mortal combat as well as some monsters, and the victor will receive a mystical gem which will enhance the winners strength, longevity, and speed. If you read the Bloodstone comics you can probably guess who the victor will be.

The film also cleverly subverts monster story tropes including the myth of the minotaur. In the myth the participants navigate in a maze and they must survive the attack of a killer monster, but here the ultimate goal of the contest for one of the main protagonists is to save a benevolent creature. In addition, this makes us question the whole idea of monster hunting because some of the monster hunters are more evil or destructive than the so-called monsters. In a curious, round about way the film ends up being a plea for tolerance.

But it's the look of the film and the color coding that really makes the film truly special. Most of the film is shot in black in white in homage to the classic Universal and RKO monster films like The Wolfman, King Kong and the Cat People, which are obvious influences on the film. The black and white might also correspond to the black and white view of the universe with monsters representing evil and the hunters representing good that the previous members of the Bloodstone family had. When Elisa meets a friendly monster and sees a more nuanced, morally ambiguous world with less clear-cut heroes and villains, color suddenly invades the shots from her perspective indicating a transformative psychological moment. A true epiphany for her.

Werewolf by Night has exquisite production design, and (along with Pearl) it is one of the best-looking horror films of the year. It would be a shame if this film is overlooked because of the relative obscurity of the characters (the Werewolf by Night comic and character have not been popular since the early Ď70s). Despite its relative brevity, this horror thriller has more creativity and good stuff in it than most of this yearís seasonal theatrically released Halloween releases and it is a veritable feast for the eyes.

Directed by:    Michael Giacchino
Written by:    Screenplay by Heather Quinn & Peter Cameron,
 from a story by Heather Quinn. Based on the
 Marvel Comics characters created by  Roy
 Thomas, Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog
Starring:    Gael GarcŪa Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet
 Sansom Harris
Released:    10/07/22 (USA)
Length:    53 minutes
Rating:    TV-14
Available On:    Disney +

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

WEREWOLF BY NIGHT © 2022 Walt Disney Films
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.


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