Flexing different muscles, Marvel’s “Werewolf by Night” is a nifty Halloween-timed special designed as a black-and-white homage to the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ’40s. Told with wry humor while tapping into unexplored quadrants of comics lore, it’s a bit too gory and scary for younger kids but a gift to fans that raises enticingly monster-ous possibilities.
A brisk 50-ish minutes, the program assumes a fair amount of comic-book knowledge and hits the ground running, with an assembly of monster hunters brought together to compete for the Bloodstone, a supernatural artifact. Guided by the widow (Harriet Sansom Harris at full tilt) of monster slayer Ulysses Bloodstone, the group must vie to earn the prize in a contest that could turn them from predators into prey.
Those on hand for this macabre Hunger Games include Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal), who fans will immediately identify as the werewolf of the comics. He’s pursuing a very different agenda – and thanks to Man-Thing, another Marvel character from the early 1970s, not the only monster unleashed. (Notably, Marvel’s recent adaptations from that era have yielded a mixed bag, with “Shang-Chi” faring better than “Eternals.”)
The hunters also include Bloodstone’s estranged daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly, adding to her butt-kicking resume after HBO’s “The Nevers”), who covets the stone despite bad blood with her stepmother.
The project was directed by prolific film composer Michael Giacchino, who adorns it with a wonderfully florid musical score, and the occasional flash of red to augment the atmospheric black-and-white imagery. Clearly, this was intended to appeal to those for whom werewolves evoke fond memories of watching Lon Chaney Jr. lope through misty moors on the late-late show and Frankenstein fleeing from peasants with pitchforks.
As noted, this shouldn’t be confused with kid-oriented fare, and while the cinematography blunts the bloodier edges, it’s aimed at a more sophisticated palate, in much the way DC’s direct-to-Blu-ray animated movies adapt material with more adult sensibilities in mind.
If the special represents a modest experiment – Marvel’s way of prying open the vault to a darker strain of horror-tinged content, as the studio absorbs its Netflix and Fox’s offshoots and Disney+ widens its standards – then it’s a savvy calling card. Seen in that light, in fact, “Werewolf by Night” could be the dawn of an intriguing new day.
“Werewolf by Night” premieres October 7 on Disney+.