Werewolf By Night Is Spooky For The MCU, But Is It Truly Scary?

This post contains spoilers for "Werewolf By Night."

As Marvel's "Werewolf by Night" opens, monster hunters gather for the funeral of their late master  Ulysses Bloodstone. They come to hear his last will and, potentially, succeed him. The person reading that will? Ulysses himself, thanks to a pre-recorded voice message and his stitched-up, puppeted corpse. Despite his creepy appearance, like a mix of the Cryptkeeper and Frankenstein's monster, Ulysses turns out to be an affable (undead) man, even cracking a dad joke that he'll be "rotting" for each of the hunters as they fight for his magical Bloodstone. Ulysses, a creepy coating over a not-that-scary core, describes "Werewolf by Night" itself.

The addition of a few horror flourishes aren't enough to disrupt Marvel's usual blend of action and comedy. If it doesn't send a chill up your spine, why even call it horror?

Genre appropriation

Michael Giacchino, director and composer of "Werewolf by Night," has talked about his childhood love for the "Creature Double Feature" and all the horror movies it included. This special in particular is most influenced by Universal Horror, the 1930s through '40s films which starred horror icons like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Universal Horror's influence is why the film is shot in black-and-white (that and it allowed more gruesome violence). There's more 1930s-esque aesthetic touches too: cigarette burn effects, a fog filter, and old-fashioned title card. But genre is more than aesthetics.

Certain Marvel movies have been praised to incorporating other genres and mixing them with superhero tropes. However, these mixes don't pass the surface level. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was called a "political thriller," even by Kevin Feige himself. However, "Winter Soldier" has too much action and its morality too black-and-white to be in that genre. Even though "Winter Soldier" features Robert Redford, it's closer to "Mission Impossible" than "Three Days of the Condor." After its premiere, "WandaVision" was compared by some to David Lynch, simply because it was set in something's-not-right suburbia. The show then devoted two whole episodes to laborious exposition and ended with two witches shooting energy beams at each other. "WandaVision" is many things, but "Blue Velvet" it is not.

"Werewolf by Night" is, unfortunately, another case of this. Closer to "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" than "The Wolf Man," all the blood and gore is presented in an action context, not a horror one. Whenever someone's getting chopped up or incinerated, it's hard to be scared because we're rooting against them. Marvel's trademark humor is subdued, but it's not absent either. As usual, there's also magical MacGuffin at play: the Bloodstone is practically a seventh Infinity Stone.

Men and Monsters

The monster that the hunters are gathered to take down is the Man-Thing (aka Dr. Ted Stallis), a swamp creature with ruby red eyes and an elephant trunk. But Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal), the titular werewolf, is a friend of Ted's and is looking to rescue him. This is all revealed when, as seen in the special's trailer, "Ted" reaches through a hedge to grab Jack. The trailer presented this like it would be a scare, but that was misleading. Ted isn't reaching out to throttle Jack, but to hug him. Thus, any fright is instantly defused.

There's nothing wrong with a bait and switch, but this doesn't even count as that. Man-Thing is never presented in a scary context and comes off as little more than Groot's scruffier big brother. His ability to spray corrosive chemicals, which he uses to dispatch the hunter Jovan and later Ulysses' widow Verusa (Harriet Sansom Harris) is just another superpower — not terrifying, but cool.

As for Jack himself, his transformation is one of the few times the special does feel like a Universal Horror movie. The camera slowly tracks in as Elsa (Laura Donnelly) crouches in fear. On the wall behind her, Jack's shadow morphs from man to beast while his gasps turn to roars. Once he escapes the cage, there's genuine suspense as the Bloodstone soldiers move slowly, searching for their prey before it becomes their hunter.

This stretch of the special is the strongest, but once Jack reveals himself, the tone shifts back towards action. In the special's closing moments, Elsa claims the Bloodstone, Jack and Ted sit comfortably by a campfire, and color returns to the world. The MCU dipping its toes into horror was but a detour, and normalcy reasserts itself.