When is a film not a film? A Halloween holiday special from the Marvel imprint, Michael Giacchino clocks in at barely 45 minutes of content, which is probably about right for a rather half-cooked idea. Taking inspiration from a venerable comic strip that dates back to the 70’s, Werewolf By Night rings the changes on the done-to-death Marvel formula. The opening credits are in a 1940’s style, the whole venture is shot in black and white apart from the final scene, and there’s precious few cross-overs, celebrity cameos and vortexes; whether you like it of not, it’s clear that Marvel are getting bored with their own box of tricks.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Jack Russell, a monster hunter by day who can take on the powers of the werewolf by night; we arrive with him at Bloodstone Manor for the funeral of Ulysses Bloodstone. Surviving the patriarch are his widow Verussa Bloodstone (Harriet Samson Harris) and his daughter Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), both of whom have aspirations to wield the fabled bloodstone itself. The jewel, which has the power to weaken monsters, is the prize offered in an in-house competition between Russell and a squad of other monster hunters; whoever emerges alive will take on the mantle of the supreme monster hunter.
So Marvel haven’t shed their tedious reliance on magical stones to build a plot around, but most of Giacchino’s pastiche feels fresh enough; the gleaming black and white photography recalls Val Lewton’s light and shade, and the design of Bloodstone manor and its lavish combat maze is an ideal setting for a monster hunter battle royale. The casting helps; Garcia Bernal manages to suggest Russell’s tortured state well before an impressive transformation scene, and Donnelly has just the right look for this, like Anne Hathaway cosplaying as Morticia Adams.
Unfortunately, there’s just not enough story here for an immersive feature, and Werewolf by Night pretty much stops when it should be getting started; all the trappings don’t compensate for an undernourished narrative that’s neither fish nor foul. The lines may be blurred, but streaming is tv, and while cinema remains the well from which all the most beloved ideas are plucked, Werewolf by Night is just a very high end pilot, seemingly unfinished, but likely to get developed as some kind of future project. For Marvel, it’s a quaint novelty item designed to suck a little more air out of Universal’s long-collapsed Dark Universe.