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'Werewolf by Night' Review: Marvel Monster Mash Is a Classic Horror Scream

This one-hour Marvel Halloween special is on Disney Plus now.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
A close-up of a woman screaming in black and white.

Dare you face the Werewolf by Night?

Disney Plus

Gasp in horror! Recoil in fright! Steel yourself for thoroughly retro chills and thrills, as you Marvel at the bite-size delight they call... Werewolf by Night!

Werewolf by Night is the latest Marvel adventure -- streaming now on Disney Plus -- but it's a little bit different. It's black and white, it's only an hour long, and it tells a monster-mashing supernatural standalone story with no obvious connection to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Billed as a "special presentation," complete with retro logo, the 52-minute film opens with an old-school horror twist on the familiar Marvel intro as bold comic book colors fade to silent-movie monochrome. The vintage-style credits set the tone straight away, evoking classic horror movies from the earliest days of the movies and what some would call the golden age of horror.

Gael García Bernal frowns in retro black and white for Marvel's horror pastiche Werewolf by Night.

Gael García Bernal used to be a werewolf, but he's alright noooooooowwwww!

Disney Plus

Gael García Bernal stars as Jack Russell, who joins several other monster hunters at the funeral of the greatest slayer of them all, the late lamented Ulysses Bloodstone. A momentous hunt has been organized, and the prize is the Bloodstone -- a mystical MacGuffin that can force disguised creatures such as werewolves to transform into their furrier, fangier form. Which is a problem for one of the assembled hunters as the true hunt begins.

Strangers gather. Flames flicker in the night. The air is rent by fearsome shouts, grotesque roars and unnerving music. There are skulls and candles and chanting hooded figures and lightning flashing while a fearsome metamorphosis occurs just beyond our sight. And not forgetting blackly comic flourishes like a comically hunched major domo mugging gamely while cranking a wind-up coffin. It's all ripe, rollicking fun, marshaled by soundtrack composer Michael Giacchino swapping his baton for a director's megaphone with obvious relish for vintage horror.

García Bernal is charming rather than commanding as the latest MCU lead. But really the true hero is Laura Donnelly from The Nevers and Outlander as Elsa Bloodstone, wisecracking black sheep of the monster-averse family. Marvel is constantly throwing up post-credit cameos from stars who may or may not ever return, but Donnelly's Bloodstone demands to be seen again (perhaps in vampire-themed movie Blade, if that gets over its apparently troubled production). 

The MCU has swelled to the point where "superhero" is no longer a genre, and each new film or TV series leans into a different genre (for instance, the Captain America movies are spy thrillers, Guardians of the Galaxy flicks are space operas, She-Hulk is supposed to be a comedy). In the hands of horror genre icon Sam Raimi, the recent Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was basically a horror movie (albeit suitable for the whole family). Now, in time for Halloween, Marvel dips even more explicitly into the spookiest genre in a film that wears its classic influences on its ripped sleeve: Werewolf by Night is a black-and-white treat that nods to age-old chillers.

Things quickly get more blood-spattered than any previous Marvel flick, which is a welcome key change. There's so much Marvel stuff around these days -- Werewolf by Night arrives in the middle of She-Hulk's run of weekly episodes -- and each new thing desperately needs some whiff of novelty (or in this case, fresh blood). In its gloriously affectionate horror stylings, Werewolf by Night throws in several memorable scenes, including one of the most intense Marvel moments in recent memory as the camera inexorably closes on grotesque silhouettes against a descending darkness.

The flick harks back to expressionist horror in its maze-like graveyard setting and crackly gramophone tunes, nodding to silent movies like 1922's Nosferatu and 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But probably the biggest influence is the assortment of horror films made by movie studio Universal in the '30s and '40s starring golden age ghouls like Dracula, Frankenstein and -- yes -- the Wolfman. 

It's kind of hilarious that Marvel and Disney so enjoyably resurrect the Universal monster movie when actual Universal already tried and failed to turn its beastly back catalog into a modern MCU-style franchise. The 2017 misfire The Mummy was meant to kick off a "Dark Universe" to rival Marvel's box office dominance, but even Tom Cruise couldn't stop the whole enterprise turning to dust the moment it burst from the crypt (it's a fun movie, I don't care what anyone says). And 2020's The Invisible Man marked a critically acclaimed rethink, leaving the way clear for Marvel to step in and show Universal how it's done.

Of course, not everyone will be on board with a pastiche of age-old cinema. But you can't accuse Werewolf by Night of wearing out its welcome: A lot of TV shows these days just can't sustain being stretched over eight to 10 hours, but I'm more than happy to dive into this bite-size hour-long special presentation format. Stuff like Hawkeye, Falcon and Winter Soldier and the current run of She-Hulk (not to mention sort-of-Marvel vampire debacle Morbius) were spread too thin; they could have made fantastic hour-long romps. Roll on this December's Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.

There may be more stories of Werewolf and Bloodstone to tell, but this is a fabulously tight and economical way to introduce them. This Halloween season, Marvel's October oddity turns out to be a scream.

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