Mild fright in “Werewolf by Night”

“Werewolf by Night” might be relatively tame by horror standards, but there’s still a lot to love in Marvel’s Halloween Special.

Gael García Bernal as Jack in Marvel's "Werewolf by Night," photo provided by Marvel Studios

Marvel’s Halloween special “Werewolf by Night” is the studio’s first wholehearted foray into the nebulous genre of horror. Previous Marvel films have leaned into horror elements, sure, but no project has attempted to embrace the genre so headstrong as “Werewolf by Night.” Famed composer Michael Giacchino performs admirably in his debut directorial role by packing a blend of suspense, humor and terror into the 50-minute television special.

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have come intimately accustomed to the title sequence which precedes each Marvel project. “Werewolf by Night” opens with a disjointed, discolored title sequence accompanied by distorted audio as technicolor picture fades to grainy black and white, adequately establishing the tone for the special.

The viewer is introduced to an unaccustomed group of monster hunters attending a funeral service at Bloodstone Temple. Each hunter seeks to possess the Bloodstone, a mystical artifact of unexplained power. Jack (Gael Garcia Bernal), our protagonist, is among the group of hunters thrust into a bloody competition wherein only the victor will emerge with the right to possess the Bloodstone.

While the story’s premise shows promise, its suspense is sapped nearly immediately. The werewolf’s identity is made apparent fairly quickly for watchful viewers and suspense generated by a mysterious monster’s off-screen roars is quickly dissolved by subversion of expectation in typical Marvel fashion. What could have been a 1940s monster movie meets supernatural whodunnit turns into a much more formulaic Marvel plot by the special’s halfway mark.

Where the story lacks suspense, however, the music makes up for it in spades. It should be no surprise that a project helmed by Giacchino sports an exceptional score. The man responsible for the music in “Up,” “Ratatouille” and “The Batman” simply doesn’t miss. The score is unsettling and gentle throughout, with occasional blaring horns amidst the speculative strings reminding the viewer that something might be lurking around the next corner.

Cinematographer Zoë White deserves profuse recognition as well. “Werewolf by Night” is shot almost entirely in monochrome, yet White utilizes flashes of electricity and shadows to brilliant effect. One scene in particular stands out, where a character’s terror is illuminated by light while a monster’s horrific transformation can only be seen in a haunting shadow on the wall behind them. Truly beautiful shot composition and lighting decisions elevate this special from an experience of simple enjoyment to one of enchanting marvel, pun intended.

Although the project could have been better had it more fully adopted themes of mystery in favor of its humor, there’s much to be celebrated about Marvel’s first television special. “Werewolf by Night” is a massively refreshing addition to the MCU at large — in a cinematic universe where projects exist as either two-hour blockbusters or as episodic stories spanning months at a time, it’s a genuine pleasure to enjoy this bite-sized Halloween special.

Watch “Werewolf by Night” now exclusively on Disney+.

Graphic provided by Elizabeth Dalsing

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