Werewolf Wednesday - Werewolf By Night
At the time of this writing, word came across that the production on Marvel Studios’ Blade had been halted. The director had quit and star Mahershala Ali was not happy with the script.
After seeing Werewolf By Night, the newest Marvel ‘Special’…a one-hour short film, all I can say is…good. Because after that one hour, one thing is painfully clear: Marvel still doesn’t have the balls to do horror. At all. Before I get all ranty, let’s look at the synopsis:
The famous monster hunter, Ulysses Bloodstone has died. With no clear-cut heir, his widow proposes a hunt, the winner receiving the fabled Bloodstone artifact itself – a mysterious gem that can both weaken and identify monsters. There are only two problems; first, one of these hunters is not what they seem and second, Bloodstone’s own estranged daughter, Elsa, has thrown her hat in the ring to contend for the gem. Will any of these hunters emerge victorious and lay claim to the Bloodstone when there are not one, but two, monsters on the prowl this night, or will the hunters become the hunted?
On the surface, Werewolf By Night should be amazing. The trailer certainly looked good, playing heavily into the vibe of the old 1930s Universal horror movies. The majority of the reviews you’re going to read online are going to be the standard Marvel movie reviews: ‘OMG! I loved it! It was equal parts creepy and funny! Totally worth an hour!”
No. Not even.
Unfortunately, Werewolf By Night highlights all the problems plaguing Phase 4 Marvel films and series ultimately displaying that if Marvel doesn’t adapt or at the very least do the occasional re-invention, then the prophecy put forward by many other filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, that comic book films are soon to go the way of the western…and how many westerns is Hollywood cranking out these days.
Let me do the positive first hear so that, again, I don’t sound all Mr. Crankypants. Composer Michael Giacchino takes up the director’s duties here and honestly, he does a pretty good job. There are moments where you DO feel the old vibe of the Universal horror films, as was the intention. The cast adds to this by contributing an edge to their performances, ratcheting up the tension, and if the film actually took itself seriously, these performances would indeed be lauded. Laura Donnelly presents an Elsa that you cannot take your eyes off of, wondering who she’ll spare and who she’ll hunt…and the tension she shares with Bloodstone’s widow, her stepmother…perhaps even wicked at that…played by Harriet Sansom Harris, proves to be a deserving core confrontation to this story. Then there’s our werewolf, Jack Russell (yeah, I know, kinda clever in a dad-pun sort of way), portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal, does a good job of showing us a character that plays the middle. Yes, he has over 100 monster kills to his name, but this time, he’s here to save one: The Man-Thing. The other hunters, while incidental for the most part, prove to be interesting obstacles with only the merest of bushes of personality. While it would have been nice to see each one expanded on, well, you’d need time to do that, and time is at a premium in this special. Also very much worth pointing out here is of course the score by Giacchino…but at the same time, given that’s his day job, to expect weakness here would be folly. The score does its best to maintain that 30s vibe and is largely successful.
So why do I not like this movie?
Because while there is some humor in horror movies, there has to be to alleviate the tension at times, it should not come at the expense of the tension or horror of things on screen. Take the opening of the hunt. The introduction is handled by the re-animated corpse of Ulysses Bloodstone himself via some fairly steampunk clockwork devices. But to have his spiel end with “I’ll be rotting for you! Just some tombstone humor there.” No. You know that Universal horror vibe you were aiming for, Marvel? Congratulations, you just killed it with a COMPLETELY unnecessary joke. Yes, I know I’m going to sound like a one-trick pony here, as my complaint in this vein goes back quite a bit with Marvel…at least to the very first Doctor Strange film…but fuck…there doesn’t ALWAYS have to be a joke. Don’t worry, it gets worse, because now we’re gonna introduce the Man-Thing.
Man-Thing deserves his own paragraph. Sure, in comics he’s been the butt-end of the joke “Giant-Sized Man-Thing” ever since the unfortunate 70s comic of the same name, but within the Marvel Universe proper, his is the touch that burns fear. He is both hunter and hunted in the horror side of the Marvel Universe: he’s willing to face the monsters…but is also a monster himself. While not exactly a 1-for-1 with DC’s Swamp Thing, their stories cover similar ground…eschewing the super-heroics for quests and adventures in the weird, the supernatural and more often than not, the horrific. These were comics that didn’t always get the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval, owing just as much to the history of EC comics fabled horror stories chronicled in Tales From the Crypt and so forth as they did to their super-hero brethren. But the writers and producers here have completely forgotten that. Instead, the entire character of Man-Thing is COMPLETELY neutered when it’s revealed that the creature prefers to be called ‘Ted’. Are you fucking kidding me? One of the most horrific visages of the Marvel Universe, and you’re gonna call him Ted? Get the fuck out of here…and damn you for doing this. To circle back around to Swamp Thing, yeah, I get it, the first two films he was in were campy as hell, especially when you consider that the first one was directed by Wes freakin’ Craven! But it’s 2022. We SHOULD be beyond that now. Clearly, we are not. Sigh.
Oh look, Man-Thing paragraph two…because Man-Thing highlights another problem that not only impacts Disney and their MCU, but all of Hollywood: the impending crash of the Visual Effects Industry. I only just learned about this recently and mean to do a deeper dive on this, but it turns out that digital effects artists are sick of working endless hours, forgoing home, family and good health, to work on films that they get very little credit for and see no additional pay from…especially when many of these films break the billion-dollar mark! While certainly not the only studio that exploits these workers, many studios point the fingers right at the MCU as being some of the worst: demanding so much while giving back too little in terms of recompensation. Thus, the output from these studios gets shoddier and shoddier and it certainly shows here with Man-Thing. This might be my only complaint about Giacchino’s direction…but any director worth his salt knows that if there’s an effect you’re not entirely certain of, you hide it with darkness and smoke/fog. The fact that doing so would have only played into ‘Ted’s mystique would have only been a boon to the production. But no. We see ‘Ted’ full on…and not only does it ruin the vibe of the film, once again turning it more comedic, but again, it exposes the weakness of the CG character and the taxed nature of the system that produced him. Compare him to the Thanos of Infinity War and Endgame of 2018 & 2019 and you see a MUCH better realized digital character developed four years ago! This should be technology on the rise, not walking backward! Just…ugh.
Speaking of technologies that should be moving forward and not back, we’ve gotta talk about Jack’s transformation sequence. Handled mostly in shadows with animation or CG, this does a disservice to any era it’s trying to replicate. If you want to go through with the 30s vibe of Universal Horror, then the transformation could have been handled the same way it was in the original Wolf Man, occurring in waves as short bits of film show the stages of the transformation before it being complete. This would have been not only cheap but also so easily achieved. If one chose to go more modern about it, you could certainly point to both 80s and 90s and even into some low-budget films of the current era [Hell yeah, WOLFCOP! – Ed.] that have given us some very visceral practical effects means of displaying a werewolf’s transformation that’s bound to make queasy the most ardent horror film fan. But for a multi-billion-dollar company, the Mouse sure does like to go cheap and unfortunately, it does show here. This is also a moment where Disney could’ve surprised everyone and rounded the corner by saying “Yeah, we’re going there!” and given us a transformation sequence that wouldn’t have only been shocking in its graphic nature but also in showing us that yes, Marvel is willing to go into this direction…to not keep it all family friendly. A missed opportunity to say the least.
In my spare time, I’ve been actually going back to this era in horror quite a bit, not only with old Karloff films but some dabbling in the Hammer Horror films of the 50s and 60s, so the vibe that they were trying to go for is right in my wheelhouse at the present. And while the trailer had my hopes up, the fact that Marvel, as always, opts to steer away from going into darker territory and stick with their usual maddening need to make everything a joke only served to increase my distaste for their more recent offerings. Which is sad because after hiring Sam Raimi to do Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness…and the Zombie Strange that came from that, I was starting to get hopeful that Marvel had finally grown a pair when it came to horror. And the fact that they were going to do Blade? Wow…even more so! But with Blade on hiatus and Werewolf By Night being such a disappointment, nope. I was hoping that with the things that this film did right, I could at least muster up a Plain Cat rating here, but this film really kinda feels like a kick in the balls that I need to walk off, and with a cheap shot like that, the best you’re gonna get is an Angry Cat.