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Marvel’s Werewolf by Night secret screening unveils a ‘complete love letter’ to classic horror

Michael Giacchino pays tribute to Hammer to Universal Monsters and Twilight Zone

Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris), face streaked with ritual makeup, screams in extreme closeup in Marvel’s Werewolf By Night Photo: Marvel Studios

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Attendees at the 2022 Fantastic Fest film festival in Austin, Texas were the first to see Marvel’s hour-long black-and-white Halloween special Werewolf by Night on Sunday night, at one of the film festival’s Secret Screenings. Director Michael Giacchino — the composer for The Batman, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Pixar’s Ratatouille, Up, Coco, The Incredibles, and Inside Out, among dozens of other films — called in for a remote Q&A after the screening to explain how the project, premiering on Disney Plus on Oct. 7, came about, and why it looks and feels so radically different from any other Marvel Studios project.

“I was having a conversation with [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige, and Kevin said, ‘Hey, like, if you were going to direct something, what would you want to direct?’” Giacchino told Fantastic Fest programming director Annick Mahnert. “And I was like, ‘Werewolf by Night!’ And he was like, ‘What? Really?’ ‘Yes. Yes! I loved it as a kid.’”

The corpse of Ulysses Bloodstone, propped upright in his coffin, in Werewolf By Night Photo: Marvel Studios

The character known as Werewolf by Night — a werewolf named Jack Russell, introduced in Marvel Spotlight in 1972 — has a long, complicated history in Marvel Comics. The Halloween special is his first screen outing from Marvel Studios. Gael García Bernal plays Jack, one of a number of people vying for the Bloodstone, a hereditary monster-fighting weapon that’s up for grabs after the death of its previous owner, Ulysses Bloodstone.

One of Jack’s chief rivals is Ulysses’ estranged daughter, Elsa Bloodstone (The Nevers star Laura Donnelly). But the special doesn’t take any of that too seriously: The actors play their roles with straight-faced gravity, but the tone is somewhere between a winking satire of classic horror films like James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, and an open stylistic imitation of them, from the black-and-white cinematography to the stylized bloodshed.

“I’ve been making movies since I was 9 years old, when my dad gave me his 8mm camera,” Giacchino said during the post-screening Q&A. “The other thing I spent my entire childhood doing was sitting in front of the television on Saturdays, watching Creature Double Feature. I was obsessed with monster movies. My brother and I would sit there — that was our church. Creature Double Feature was our religion.”

Giacchino says he and his brother “grew up on all of the old Universal monster movies,” in addition to classic British movies from Hammer Films and Japanese monster movies. “The other thing I loved was Twilight Zone,” he said. When discussing making this, all along, I kept saying, ‘We have to think of this as an episode of The Twilight Zone. We’re gonna experience one night in the life of Jack and Elsa, and see what happens.’ […] As you can tell, I’m sure, [the Werewolf by Night special is] a love letter to all of those things. It’s a complete love letter to all of them, for all the inspiration they gave me over the years.”

The special’s classic inspirations were behind the decision to present Werewolf by Night in black and white. Giacchino says he shot the special in color, and that the early cuts were in color, but that he was always hoping he’d be allowed to present it in black and white. “So we had a separate monitor that was only showing black and white, so I could still check how it would look.”

Gael García Bernal as Jack Russell sitting wide-eyed in a chair with two fabulously dressed out of focus horror figures behind him in Werewolf by Night Image: Marvel Studios

Eventually, though, he assembled a black-and-white cut and showed it to Feige. “And I remember when when it was over, Kevin looked at me, and he goes, ‘I think we have to release this in black and white, don’t we?’ […] So it was one of those stylistic things that I think everyone got on board as soon as they saw it. It felt like the right thing to do for the spirit of the story we were telling.”

Giacchino also addressed the design of the werewolf in the special, a creature that looks a lot more like the woolly wolf-man played by Lon Chaney, Jr. in 1941’s Universal Studios The Wolf Man than like the monstrous CGI creations of the Underworld or Twilight movies.

“One of the things I love about films like Werewolf of London was that you could actually see the actor’s face, and you could see the eyes,” Giacchino said. “It wasn’t buried beneath a bunch of stuff, or he didn’t just turn into a wolf. [Older film designs] still kept the human qualities. I think that was very important, especially to me, to say, ‘Behind this thing we call monster is a person with feelings, somebody who’s dealing with an issue that’s very tough to deal with. None of these monsters want to be monsters.

“And these are all basically — you look at it, they’re people who need help. And the world is always against them. So you can only imagine what that must be like, to be in a situation where the world looks at you as a monster, but you yourself know you’re not.”

Giacchino said that while he loved the original Werewolf by Night comic as a child, he felt the need to make significant changes to make the story work in a modern setting. “Jack Russell in that comic run was an 18-year-old kid from Malibu,” he says. “Really rich, tons of money. […] He would always forget, for some reason, that there was a full moon tonight. He’d always be like, ‘Oh, man! There’s a full moon tonight!’ Even in the ’70s, they had almanacs!”

Werewolf by Night debuts on Disney Plus on Oct. 7.

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