Reviewed by Tim Robins
I wanted to review Marvel Studios’ Werewolf by Night on All Hallows’ Eve, but delays meant I viewed it the day after. The special explores the dark side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where, we are told, supernatural monsters dwell.
Werewolf by Night was a successful comic back in the 1970s. The character of Jack Russell (no laughing at the back!), the titular werewolf, was introduced in Marvel Spotlight #2, in 1972, before graduating to his own comic which ran for 43 issues; and is probably best remembered for introducing the character of Moon Knight to the Marvel Comics Universe.
Alongside Jack Russell, the TV Special includes Marvel’s swamp monster, The Man-Thing, and the Bloodstone family, related to the recently deceased Ulysses Bloodstone, the ‘Monster Hunter’ first introduced in Marvel Presents #1, in 1975.
Werewolf By Night’s plot mechanics are surprisingly convoluted, but at heart the story is a riff on British Amicus horror film, The Beast Must Die, and the horror-mystery trope of a group of heirs invited to hear the reading of a will, but who find their own lives are in peril. (Think Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary.
So, Werewolf By Night sees Ulysses Bloodstone’s widow, Verussa (Harriet Harris), summon a disparate group of monster hunters, including Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal) to the bizarre Bloodstone Manor. Once there, they are told that they must compete to the death with each other and capture the so-called “bloodstone”, which has been placed on the back of a monster. In this fur-for-all, they are joined by Ulysses’ estranged daughter, Elsa (Laura Donnelly), an all-action woman with secrets of her own.
Advanced publicity made much of director Michael Giacchino’s decision to tell the story in black and white, in homage to Universal’s Horror movies of, particularly, the 1930s and 40s. The director has described the TV Special as “a love letter to monsters and their humanity”.
I don’t think the black and white cinematography really added anything, and the classic horror films were a lot more diverse and interesting than simply lacking colour. In the end, the film reverts to colour, the transition accompanied by the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a reference to The Wizard of Oz’s use of colour and black and white. Frankly, the transition added nothing, other than colour, and was thematically confusing.
The Monster Hunters wander through a maze-like garden dotted with concrete monoliths, which give these scenes something of the feel of 1959’s The House on Haunted Hill which was set in Frank Loyd Wright’s modernist Ennis House. Rather late-in-the-day, Jack Russell transforms into his Werewolf fursona, amidst various other revelations.
The performances are fun, particularly Harris’s scenery chewing widow and Bernal, who played Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), brings some credibility to the role of Jack Russell. Donnelly is OK. She attempts to make the studio bound action scenes look exciting, although the direction lets her down.
The TV Special is really too short to explore any of its characters in much depth. It was fun to see The Man-Thing back in action. His costume, partly realised as a practical effect, caught the creature’s likeness, although his personality was given a Grootish make-over. This just-about works – at least one person who shows fear burns at the the Man-Thing’s touch, as in the comics.
Overall, Werewolf by Night is a mixed bag of tricks and treats. I am a bit at a loss to understand those critics who have lauded the TV Special as a great step forward in the MCU, other than, perhaps, its recognition that the supernatural exists, so Doctor Strange might become more interesting. Otherwise, although I loved the original comic, I guess Werewolf by Night just wasn’t my thing, man.
• Werewolf by Night is available now on Disney+
Jack Russell stars in tales to make you howl, as Marvel’s very own Werewolf! Learn how Jack became one of the grooviest ghoulies of the seventies in this classic collection of his earliest adventures! Afflicted with his family’s curse, Jack’s on a search for answers – could they lie in the terrible tome known as the Darkhold? But Jack’s quest is fraught with danger -from mad monks to big game hunters to a traveling freak show! Then there’s the terror of Tatterdemalion, the horror of Hangman and the torment of Taboo! But few encounters can compare with Krogg, the lurker from beyond – except, maybe, a Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man…and a supernatural showdown with Dracula himself!
Collects Marvel Spotlight (1971) #2-4, Werewolf by Night (1972) #1-15, Marvel Team-Up (1972) #12, Tomb of Dracula (1972) #18
More howling great adventures starring Jack Russell — the Werewolf by Night! Whether it’s death in the cathedral, courtesy of none other than the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or murder by moonlight at the hands of another lycanthrope, the stakes are high for Jack! He’ll battle the Behemoth, team up with Tigra, melee with Morbius and fight Frankenstein’s Monster — but can he avoid the Hangman’s noose? Whether Jack’s in Hollywood or Transylvania, there’s no shortage of vampires, brutes and other terrors out to get him — but few can match the outright horror of the Soul-Beast! Yet Jack’s greatest fear remains the fate of his sister — can he spare her from his lycanthropic curse and the dread attentions of Doctor Glitternight?
Collects Werewolf By Night (1972) #16-30, Giant-Size Creatures #1, Giant-Size Werewolf #2-4 and material from Monsters Unleashed (1973) #6-7.
Complete your collection of the classic adventures of Marvel’s legendary lycanthrope! But can even Jack Russell survive when he battles the silver-clad stalker known as Moon Knight? There are plenty more candidates lining up to wrestle the Werewolf — including Hangman, Brother Voodoo, Iron Man and Fire-Eyes, the man with the gaze of doom! But will Spider-Woman be a friend or a fearsome foe?
Jack has faced super heroes and supernatural threats; now he and Spider-Man — and Ghost Rider, too — will learn that no villain is more vile than…Tatterdemalion! Plus: Witness the savage rematch between Moon Knight and the Werewolf!
Collects Giant-Size Werewolf #5; Werewolf By Night (1972) #31-43; Marvel Premiere #28; Spider-Woman (1978) #6, #19 And #32; Marvel Team-Up (1972) #93; Ghost Rider (1973) #55; Moon Knight (1980) #29 (A Story) And #30; And Material From Marvel Premiere #59
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.