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At this moment, no streamer is having more fun with its combination of boundless programming real estate, boundless money and boundless IP than Disney+. Whether it’s six-hour commercials — err… “documentaries” — for Disney-adjacent properties or five-minute animated shorts built around various beloved characters, it’s never entirely clear when the thing premiering on Disney+ is going to be an ongoing series, limited series, feature-length movie or nebulously unspecified “special.”
In that latter category, Disney+ dropped the generally inconsistent Muppets Haunted Mansion last October. It continued the company’s baffling ongoing struggle to figure out smart things to do with the seemingly endlessly fungible Muppets franchise, but at only 49 minutes and still packed with appealing moments, it felt like exactly the sort of small, jeopardy-free swing Disney should be taking.
The same is true of this October’s Disney+ Halloween season special, Werewolf by Night. Representing a solid transition to live-action directing from versatile and award-winning composer Michael Giacchino, Werewolf by Night allows Disney to tip-toe into the more horror-inflected corner of the Marvel catalog with the lowest of possible stakes. At only 52 minutes and decidedly light on plot and supporting characters, it’s a slight but fairly amusing thing, elevated above being a mere exercise in style by the lead performances from Gael Garcia Bernal and Laura Donnelly.
Writers Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron have approached the Werewolf by Night property, which dates back to the early ’70s, efficiently. Narration tells us that legendary monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone has passed away, leaving a priceless supernatural relic for a yet-to-be-determined heir. In addition to glowing red in an otherwise black-and-white world, the bloodstone gives its possessor enhanced strength, protection and longevity.
Ulysses’ natural successor, Donnelly’s Elsa Bloodstone, distanced herself from the family business, so his widow (Harriet Sansom Harris, flawlessly evoking every stern housekeeper or menacing matriarch to ever grace a horror screen) is staging a challenge to inherit the bloodstone. She invited some of the world’s most famous monster hunters — largely nameless and personality-free figures played by the likes of Kirk Thatcher, Leonardo Nam and Jaycob Maya — to the Bloodstone estate. Each hunter has a celebrated résumé of kills, but none can match Jack Russell (Garcia Bernal), a brooding mystery man with lycanthropic tendencies. Elsa has also chosen this moment to return to the family fold, with an unclear agenda.
As for the competition? One particularly terrifying beast, a known commodity to more-than-casual Marvel fans, will be let loose on the property with the bloodstone attached. Catch the monster? Get the bloodstone! Simple.
Simplicity really is the name of the game for Werewolf by Night. The Bloodstone estate is a nicely designed labyrinth of gardens, catacombs, evocative libraries and open rotundas and, after the premise-setting introduction, the special is a lot of scurrying through doorways, getting trapped in mausoleums and other set-ups for brief-but-fun fights and showcases for moody and evocative lighting.
For Giacchino, it’s an obvious and exceptional opportunity to go down a checklist of vintage spooky homages, a tipped cap to the Universal monster classics here, a nod to Hammer gothic tropes there. It isn’t always a cohesive mixture, swinging wildly from rich and genuinely evocative one moment to intentionally corny the next, and I’d say that Giacchino and cinematographer Zoë White probably could have pushed the extremes of the aesthetic even more. Like if you’re going to include cheeky cigarette burns as reminders to change film reels that don’t exist, why not weather the footage more, give it more of that celluloid texture? Still, if you just take everything in Werewolf by Night as a proof of concept that the Disney+/Marvel brand can encompass this bonkers corner of the comic canon, it works.
Werewolf by Night is a tiny bit scary, but not too scary. It’s a little bit gory, but not too too gory. The special is driven more by makeup effects than CG, but there’s some of that as well, and while you see some decently realized creatures and whatnot, the sound design takes the place of anything overt or graphic. Given Giacchino’s background — and I can count on very few hands the number of composers who have become directors, while it’s far easier to think of directors who also dabble in composing — it’s exactly zero surprise that the standout element that ties everything together is a delightfully arch score, doing folks like Franz Waxman (The Bride of Frankenstein) and James Bernard (too many Hammer films to list) proud.
Garcia Bernal makes his character tormented with just a twinkle of good humor, with 52 minutes offering exactly enough time to make viewers go, “I’d like to learn more about this monster hunter who’s also a monster,” but not enough time to actually learn anything. It’s a real pleasure to see Garcia Bernal and longtime chum and collaborator Diego Luna both anchoring genre entries on Disney+, though Andor finds more provocative undercurrents in Luna’s outsider status. Again, there just isn’t much time here! Garcia Bernal has a little spark of chemistry with Donnelly, who’s very amusingly sour and irritated by all of the horrific proceedings, but again there isn’t time for more than that.
The couple of minutes of conversation between Jack and Elsa, not quite flirting but at least flirting with the idea of flirting, plus the amusing capper at the end of the special were easily sufficient to whet my appetite for future monster-hunting team-ups. Presumably the good people at Marvel and Disney+ know that if you have Gael Garcia Bernal inked to a deal to play a monster-chasing werewolf, you don’t waste him on a one-off holiday special. Whether Werewolf by Night spawns a TV series, a feature-length movie or some other narrative permutation hardly matters to me — and, pleasantly, Disney+ seems not to have any rules either.
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