Horror has been in the air around Marvel projects of late. Announcing Blade’s return as well as Sam Raimi’s creative stamp on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) are both notable for the horror-averse MCU. Yes, there have been genre-bending moments here and there, but it was starting to look like Blade: Trinity (2004) was to be the final Marvel word on horror proper. With the reports of behind-the-scenes tumult, it’s hard to say exactly what we’ll end up with when Blade (2023) bows, but just in time for Spooky Season this year we have a treat in the form of Werewolf by Night (2022). Directed by composer extraordinaire Michael Giacchino, Werewolf by Night is a brisk 52-minute affair that finally introduces full-throated horror, of the throwback Hammer variety, into the MCU.
On the event of his death, Ulysses Bloodstone charges his widow Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris) with rounding up a crack team of monster hunters to convene at his estate. The reason? In life, Ulysses wielded a powerful family heirloom called, you guessed it, the Bloodstone. Whoever holds the Bloodstone can access and channel its formidable supernatural abilities. The hunters have assembled to carry out a hunt, the winner rewarded control of the Bloodstone. Among these hunters are mild-mannered Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal) and Ulysses’ estranged daughter Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly). Once the stage is set, the hunters are loosed on the grounds to hunt a creature and each other. But, not everyone is who they seem, and the dangers multiply.
It’s clear from the jump that Giacchino is a fan and student of the aforementioned Hammer Horror films. Best known for introducing Christopher Lee as Dracula, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, the studio was synonymous with campy extravagance. Aesthetically, Giacchino blends that approach with the black and white palette more reminiscent of horror’s German expressionist roots and the Universal Pictures monster movies that brought it to Hollywood. Giacchino embraces chiaroscuro lighting, swathing the imposing manor and garden labyrinth in a criss-crossing of shadows. He also has an eye for frames within frames. He puts the wonderfully designed gothic architecture to good use as Jack, Elsa, and the other assembled nasties hunt. Some of the digitized add-ons, such as film grain and exposure blips do feel forced, taking away from the beauty underneath. Yet, those are a minor distraction at worst.
What’s fascinating, if arguably unsurprising, is that Giacchino directs with a similar rhythm and verve to how he composes. The fact that he also wrote a dazzling score for Werewolf by Night only helps to foreground this. Listen to any number of Giacchino’s works and you find a consistent structure amidst the otherwise remarkably varied output. For each project, Giacchino builds out a dynamic but understated baseline that pulses throughout themes and their variations. The strength of that foundation then loosens up at key moments to burst forth with a more ornate and propulsive flourish. It’s the waterfall of strings halfway through the “Ratatouille Main Theme.” The bombast of “Earthbound and Down” from Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), exploding the sonic language he built throughout the early goings. All of that is in his direction of Werewolf by Night, a rest then attack fitting of the subject and genre.
The cast gamely meets Giacchino in that tone, allowing for a collection of smartly calibrated performances. As the de facto leads, García Bernal and Donnelly make a deft pairing. García Bernal plays Jack as a restrained and awkward man. The decision amplifies the reveal of his more brutal self. Conversely, Donnelly embodies Elsa as a domineering, quick-witted, badass. She suffers no fools, not even family. Their energies compliment in their handful of scenes together. They also anchor the story so everyone around them can simply have a blast. Chief among those chewing the scenery is Sansom Harris. She delivers a villainous turn I can only imagine Lee and Cushing would doff their hats too. She blasts her eyelids wide, cackles out bits of Bloodstone lore, and finds delicious ways to read every line. García Bernal and Donnelly are the stars yes, but Sansom Harris is the queen.
Because of its short runtime, Werewolf by Night has little room for the massive exposition dumps and creaking formulas usually found in recent Marvel fare. Yet, the moments where Werewolf by Night suffers is when MCU hallmarks appear as momentary deviations from a work otherwise defined by its departure from the norms. Attempts to inject MCU-friendly banter amidst the campier tone are the main offender. When those passages pop up in between more grisly set-pieces (Severed arm! Bleeding sword in skull!) it deflates some of the monster movie magic. That is likely inevitable in the MCU machine at this point. Yet, I take heart in how much more often I found myself smiling, engrossed by Giacchino’s vision. Werewolf by Night is a fabulous one-off, and an exciting foray into horror with the inkling of more to come.
Werewolf by Night is a fabulous one-off, and an exciting foray into horror with the inkling of more to come.
Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared in publications such as Filmhounds Magazine, Film Cred, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.