Allow me to indulge in one of my other favorite pop culture subjects: Horror Comics.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought one of its prominent horror titles to the (small) screen. The comic industry, like the film industry, was subject to the enforcement of a morality code. In the 1950s EC Comics produced several popular comics with some wonderfully strong horror content. The Vault of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and the Haunt of fear were all prominent publications that served real horror to kids who were not well served by real horror movies in the 1950s. Not only were they delivering beautifully illustrated books, but they also were pushing the boundaries of social norms.
The conservative sensibility of the times would not have it, and EC Comics was driven out of business by the imposition of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Horror-themed comics would be on hiatus throughout the 1960s, but, with American culture changing, the 1970s opened the door back up for comics to introduce scary material.
Werewolf by Night was a title originally created by Stan Lee’s predecessor studio Atlas Comics in 1953 and was drawn by the great Mike Ploog (Who would go on to illustrate the concept design for John Carpenter’s The Thing, among many other great projects.) It gave us the wonderfully named Jack Russell (woof!), a legacy lycanthrope who inherited his werewolf transformation powers from an ancestor who battled Dracula. (Of course!) When the CCA shut the door on horror comics, Werewolf by night went into hibernation, and returned in 1972, along with other Horror creations like Man-Thing, Morbius the Living Vampire, and Ghost Rider. These monstrous heroes would become THE LEGION OF MONSTERS!
A moment of silence for Morbius’ unfortunate entry into the movies.
Apparently, there wasn’t much of an appetite for a monster superhero team, and the popularity of this book slumped in the late 70s. It would return in the late ’90s, and a new Legion of Monsters would form in 2010, with Elsa Bloodstone (a sexy monster hunter), Man-Thing, Morbius, Frankenstein (the monster, not the doctor), N’Katu the Living Mummy, Satana, and my favorite… The MANPHIBIAN! (A creature of the black lagoon iteration.)
The Disney Movie Special
Given the amount of buzz that any Marvel property generates, it was stunning that this Werewolf by Night property arrived at Halloween with minimal fanfare. I certainly was taken by surprise, as there was no Kevin Feige “Save the Date” announcement that so many other Disney properties receive. I was curious, given the sensitivity that the parent Disney company has to gore, what kind of horror this show could really bring.
Smartly, this is a gloriously black-and-white production, harkening back to a Universal Monsters feel, and in a way, this helps establish the expectations. The premise here is that the famed monster hunter Ulysses Bloodstone has perished, and the legendary bloodstone artifact that gave Bloodstone mighty monster slaying powers is now ready to be inherited by a monster tracker who can earn the relic by hunting a monster in the labyrinth behind Bloodstone’s foreboding manor. Famed monster hunters from around the world have been summoned to the Bloodstone Temple.
Among the hunters are Bloodstone’s estranged daughter Elsa (Laura Donnelly, who looks so much like Jessica Jones’ actress Krysten Ritter that I thought Jones was one of the hunters), and Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal) an outwardly sweet man who apparently has the highest monster kill count of the group. Spoiler alert: He’s a werewolf. All of the hunters look cut from Vampire the Masquerade book of badasses. Bloodstone’s widow, Elsa’s stepmother Verussa (Harriet Sansom Harris) initiates the hunt, and the adventure is afoot.
This is a very short film, clocking in at 52 minutes, so you could think of it as a short feature or an extended short. It is tidy and efficient in its execution and the presence of big Disney money ensures that this is a wonderful-looking project. And there are considerable amounts of bloodshed and dismemberments, showing that Disney has some… guts. By the time the film is finished, if you didn’t know these characters going in, you’ll have a good understanding at the end.
The Man-Thing (Carey Jones) is really well used here. Ted (he has a name) is a fearsome creature, but also endearing. Kudos to Disney’s production team for creating a practical costume. Jones has become the big man in a suit, much like Doug Jones (no relation) does for thin monsters, having suited up for Predators, Boba Fett (Black Krrsantan), and Creepshow. What’s more, Jones is the makeup FX supervisor for this production, working for the famed KNB EFX Group. There is likely some digital work in play, but it’s a terrific-looking creature, and the Man-Thing has clear emotions.
There is an underlying sense that Marvel/Disney are testing the waters here. Providing a little taste for us, to see if they can make this into a continuing series. It was released as a Marvel Special Presentation, suggesting it also could just be a one-off. But that’s not the way that this company does things. If they find success, they will strike that nail again.
There is a baseline quality for all Marvel properties nowadays. You can expect high production values, clever scripts, solid acting performances, and top-notch action sequences. Where Marvel will tend to slip up is sameness. Does this feel new? Is it going through the same motions? Does it feel like a rehashed superhero plot? Werewolf by night avoids the traps of any Marvel “coasting”. This film also avoids the other big Marvel trap, that of unreasonable expectations and overplayed fan service. These characters are back-bench comic protagonists. Most people watching this will be introduced to them, so there is an inherent freshness to the feel in that way.
Something not to be overlooked is Marvel’s faith in trying out unusual director choices. Michael Giacchino is a hugely successful movie musical composer, with 158 composer credits to his name. This is his first feature film, and the trust was well placed. Naturally, the sound design and music for this film are top-notch. You realize that a movie music composer will have an excellent sense of editing and staging of a film, and I think Disney’s risk really paid off here. Honestly, for them, this was probably a pretty low-risk operation, but down the road, it will pay off grandly both by enlarging their stable of capable filmmakers, and also opening a door into the Marvel Horror-verse, should they want to do this way.
Manphibian next, please!
Werewolf by Night is Rated TV-14 for black-and-white gore and violence. It is currently available streaming exclusively on Disney +.