Of Monsters and Men: Classic Horror DNA in Marvel’s Werewolf by Night
I can still remember the first time I saw the 1941 Universal Pictures masterpiece, The Wolf Man. It was shown as the second half of a double billing with 1931’s Dracula, and I was buried beneath the blankets at my grandmother’s house deep in the Appalachian Mountains. And let me tell you something, folks. When you live in the more remote regions of the country, where the night is still dark and the only sources of light are the moon and stars and not streetlamps, there is absolutely nothing more terrifying than the thought of Lon Chaney, Jr. stalking through the trees in that iconic Jack Pierce makeup just beyond your bedroom window.
I fell in love with the “Universal Monsters,” as these films are now known. Creature features like Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) all left indelible impressions, steering me toward their source material and some of the best (and most religious) books and stories I have ever read. I cared little for the slashers that most of my friends watched, preferring dark castles and cloaked fiends over summer camps and hockey-masked killers.
So, when Marvel premiered its new one-hour Disney Plus special Werewolf by Night, an homage to these classic monster films shot in true black-and-white monochrome, I was up in the small hours of the night, blankets at the ready, hoping to recapture some of the magic that cast its spell on me that night at Grandma’s.
Werewolf by Night is one of Marvel’s lesser-known comic book properties. Originating in 1972 from an idea by legendary comics editor Roy Thomas, the series has never enjoyed the mainstream appeal of other Marvel titles. That has not stopped the character of Jack Russell from evolving through the years under the pens of different writers, though his popularity has waned since the ‘80s.
With the new special on Disney Plus, Marvel has breathed new life into the property just in time for the Halloween season. Better still, director Michael Giacchino (yes, the highly regarded composer) reached back into the annals of cinema history and dusted off more than a few classic horror films from which to draw inspiration. The special is still a product of Marvel Studios, so it has all the quirky humor that audiences have come to expect, but nonetheless plays as something of a love-letter to those old-school monster flicks. It takes a little time for the titular creature to manifest, but when the claws finally come out and the practical effects are on full display, you sort of forget that you are watching something from the same producer that brought audiences the likes of The Avengers (2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
The story follows Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal), who infiltrates a secret gathering of deadly monster hunters hoping to find and rescue the Man-Thing, another creature that is a part of Marvel’s stable of comic book monsters created by Roy Thomas. During his search, Jack crosses paths with Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the daughter of a legendary monster hunter, who seeks to break from her family’s traditions. This sets them both against Elsa’s stepmother, Verusa (Harriet Sansom Harris), the group’s leader who has a streak of white in her hair that I am absolutely convinced is a subtle nod to the iconic creature design of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Less is more in this lean, mean adaptation that clocks in at just under sixty minutes. Characters are sketched more than drawn, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I sort of miss the days when every movie did not have to be an overblown affair that drags on for two-plus hours. The special takes just enough time to tell its story as is necessary and does not overstay its welcome. The three leads do a remarkable amount with what little they have, and Bernal comes across as an immediately likable protagonist whose dramatic condition invites no small amount of sympathy. There is genuine fear in his eyes when he realizes that there will be no escaping his monstrous transformation, and even when buried beneath the practical effects manages to generate a storm of emotions.
Werewolf by Night does not rewrite Disney’s genetic template when it comes to their modern adaptations of Marvel properties, but it does open the door to something unique and different—which, if current headlines are to be believed, is something that Marvel Studios needs desperately. Whether or not Marvel will develop these ideas further remains to be seen, but a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes might be the encouragement executives need to return to this corner of their cinematic universe.
Bernal’s performance as Jack is tinged with tragedy, which shows the depths this creative team will probe to emulate classic monster stories. One of the most discussed ideas in monster literature is the notion that many iconic monsters are tragic figures. Frankenstein’s monster, for example, is almost stupidly evil because he seeks good things but inadvertently causes destruction in the attempt. His horrific murder of a child is the result of his attempt to try and understand human companionship—his own childlike innocence prevented him from comprehending he was actually hurting the girl until it was too late. Similarly, in The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) sought desperately to escape the dark fate that lingered over him after his gruesome encounter with a werewolf, only to be carried to his death in the end.
Indeed, in many of these powerful tales, the true monsters are often revealed to be those humans who give in to their most basic instincts. Frankenstein’s monster is only a monster because his creator (after whom the book is named—it is an absurdly popular misconception that Frankenstein is actually the creature) was a monstrous man inwardly, a coward who refused to deal with the ramifications of his attempts to see science triumph over God.
Werewolf by Night channels both ideas into its terse narrative. When Jack learns that a mystical relic will cause him to transform before the full moon, he becomes terrified and pleads with the monster hunters for their sakes. He does not want to kill them, as he explains to Elsa. But when the beast takes control, Jack’s willpower is decidedly less resolved. Similarly, the Man-Thing is shown to be something of a gentle giant (though truly terrifying when provoked), not deserving of the hunters’ cruelty. The hunters are then shown to be the truly monstrous characters, who fashion their own destruction through hubris, narrowmindedness, and a lack of compassion.
As a Christian, I used to find that I had to try and justify my interest in gothic literature, monsters, and horror as a genre. There always seemed to be a sense in which these kinds of stories were taboo, yet I could not help but find myself compelled by them. Never have I sat down to watch one of these films or read one of these books for the purpose of delighting in evil, nor, to my knowledge, have any of my family or friends who watch or read the same. If anything, I have found many works of classic horror to be unique in their portrayal of true goodness, which is often made so strikingly clear due to the darkness of the subject matter.
Faith and friendship, for example, see the tormented protagonists through the nightmare that is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Jonathan Harker’s refusal to give up his betrothed to the darkness, and Van Helsing’s unswerving commitment to aiding them, ultimately breaks the vile Count’s dark hold over Mina—strengths of character that are only truly seen when measured against the terrible evil they are up against. Much in the same way, Jack Russell’s selfless commitment to rescuing the Man-Thing and willingness to befriend Elsa when she herself is a trained hunter of monsters stands in stark contrast to the twisted and selfish motivations of the cabal of hunters in Werewolf by Night.
Director Michael Giacchino, when promoting the special, argued that the world “has gone into this thing where all the scary stuff has gotten too sadistic,” and that Werewolf by Night “actually has a real moral center.” That moral center is found in the DNA shared between these classic monster stories and Werewolf by Night. You can see it in practically every character archetype, theme, frame, and practical effect. And it would be a crying shame for Marvel Studios to never again tap this storytelling vein.
In an interesting twist, these tales of the monstrous so frequently become passageways into fascinating explorations of the human condition and the cost of sin. In the age of the “gritty” anti-hero, where stories are lauded for their ability to “blur the lines” between right and wrong, rare is the genre story that begins with the assumption that evil is real and must be dealt with. Yet this is exactly the presupposition upon which many classic horror stories operate.
Few films scour my soul inside and out like these, which present an unflinching look at the sins all men are capable of without seeking to justify them or complicate the basic, black-and-white morality that does, in fact, permeate Scripture. Classic horror tales are some of the only stories out there telling us that true evil is not something to be medicated or therapied into remission; no, in these stories, true evil is still something that needs to be staked through the heart and destroyed. Goodness is made even more pronounced because of this, and often arises from the most unexpected places—sometimes from the creatures that appear grotesque.
The true power of these stories lies in their ability to literalize the metaphor of the whitewashed tomb. They remind us that a squeaky-clean outward appearance is often deceptive, and that goodness and evil are ultimately matters of the heart.