Ever see the music video for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song “Heads Will Roll?” It’s great. There’s a dinner party and a concert and then a werewolf shows up and murders everyone with sweet dance moves. Werewolf by Night, “a Marvel Studios special presentation” — basically the streaming era version of a TV movie — is kind of like that. There’s a big, foreboding party, which goes about how you’d expect, until a werewolf shows up. And then it gets even better?
Directed by acclaimed composer Michael Giacchino with a script by Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron, Werewolf by Night pulls double duty as both a loving genre pastiche and an introduction of several of Marvel Comics’ storied horror characters to the MCU proper. Like the ’70s comic it’s based on, Werewolf by Night follows Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal), the eponymous man-monster on a spooky adventure. Famed monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone has died; a powerful relic, the Bloodstone he was named after, is now up for grabs, and several monster hunters are invited to his estate to try and win it in a competitive monster hunt.
The monster being hunted is kept secret from the assembled hunters, but it’s not Russell — to everyone there, he’s The Man With No Name, someone with an impressive monster-killing resume and a backstory that’s effectively a blank slate. (As someone who turns into a werewolf, it’s ideal that Russell keep his ability under wraps.) And he’s not the only one bringing baggage to the night’s proceedings: Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly of The Nevers), Ulysses’ estranged daughter, has come for what she sees as her birthright, despite seemingly having little interest in the family profession.
Unfolding across a zippy 53-minute run time, Werewolf by Night is more or less here to do what it says on the box: offer stylish throwback thrills that lean more kitschy than scary, set in an unexplored corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That it’s also presented differently from most other MCU ventures thus far goes a long way. Its closest sibling is WandaVision, but without the wider stakes that show eventually took on in addition to its homage. The fun is in relishing the love for old Universal monster movies that everyone involved clearly has, and not in the special’s MCU connections. Sharp-eyed viewers and Marvel scholars will find several allusions to comics lore, but nothing here is really meant to change the MCU status quo — just to let you know that hey, there are monsters here.
As Jack Russell, Gael García Bernal is a great audience surrogate, someone who enjoys being mysterious but is also happy to drop the charade and become a personable (maybe even relatable) guy once he achieves his goals. Laura Donnelly’s performance as Elsa Bloodstone is more guarded, as her character invites the most questions — but also the most opportunity to show up again in further MCU projects, should Marvel’s horror stable see more action in the future. But perhaps the biggest treat is Harriet Sansom Harris as Verusa, Ulysses’ widow and the night’s master of ceremonies, delivering an over-the-top performance that gives the whole affair huge theater-kid energy.
Werewolf by Night is both a great palate cleanser for those looking for a break from the usual MCU bricklaying and a good way to ease into spooky season with an over-the-top tone-setter. Unlike a lot of Marvel affairs, it’s not entirely self-referential, interested only in its own lore. For once, it’s a project that points outward: to Hollywood’s horror history, to Universal’s monster canon and Hammer’s violent cheese. Watch it and consider revisiting those influences, or checking them out for the first time. Maybe spin a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record while you decide.