This article is part of our coverage of the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, taking place from September 22-29. This entry reviews this year’s surprise secret screening, Werewolf by Night. Follow along with our reviews, interviews, and features from the fest in our Fantastic Fest archive.
Secret screenings at Fantastic Fest are tricky animals. In the days building up to their reveal, attendees buzz with their best guesses. Some years they nail it. In other years, it’s a swing and a miss. When Rian Johnson and Karina Longworth were spotted walking around the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, whispers went out like prayers speculating a Glass Onion showing. Of course, Johnson and Longworth were probably just there celebrating their bud Noah Segan’s directorial debut, Blood Relatives.
Other best guesses belonged to M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin and Hulu’s Hellraiser (aka Huluraiser). At no point did I hear rumblings about a Marvel Studios appearance, and when the festival’s director of programming Annick Mahnert announced Werewolf by Night to the crowd (underscored with a howl roaring from the PA system above), an odd murmur rippled through the theater.
Marvel Studios at Fantastic Fest? For some, it just doesn’t gel. The films most lionized at this particular festival are the maniac curveballs; the movies where crazed security guards have sex with gold-dipped Lexuses (H4Z4RD), or where kung fu puppets burst into bloody, wet explosions (Demigod: The Legend Begins). The Avengers seem too tame and universally cherished to win over the FF audience.
And, yes, I did see some people walk out immediately. Their loss.
Frankly, Werewolf by Night is very much a Fantastic Fest fright. Director Michael Giacchino has made a very goofy yet loving tribute to the Universal and Hammer horror monster movies of his youth. He’s working in the confines of camp, a decision that could alienate Marvel die-hards and detractors alike. Imagine a trailer ripped from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse anthology film and extended into a feature or an hour-long Halloween special. While it’s nowhere near as bloody or exploitative as Machete, Werewolf by Night is not absent of gore either.
When honoring Hammer horror, you need blood and lots of it. Werewolf by Night‘s action sequences feature severed limbs, spliced skulls, arrows penetrating throats, and getting stuck in the meat below the tongue. The violence is more John Wick than Dawn of the Dead. The cuts are quick; the CGI blood even quicker. Still, I can’t imagine Captain America or the filmmakers in charge of him relishing in so much bodily mayhem.
Giacchino doesn’t have much runtime to play within. Werewolf by Night is a glorified television episode where a gaggle of monster hunters gathers at Ulysses Bloodstone’s funeral. Jack Russell (Gael García Bernal) is championed above the others, having supposedly scored more than a hundred kills in his time. Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly) is the estranged daughter of the deceased. And the rest look cool but barely get enough screen time to be anything other than menacing.
Each killer is present, hoping to inherit the Bloodstone that gives the family their ominous name. The jewel is a mighty weapon designed to send the world’s monsters to their graves. Only the best of the best should have access to it, and to decide its ownership, the Lady Verusa (Harriet Sansom Harris) holds her own Hard Target sporting event switching out Jean-Claude Van Damme for the swampy Man-Thing.
What these hateful hunters don’t know is that one of their own hides a hairy secret. The titular werewolf, the guy with a dog’s name. Gael García Bernal spends the film’s first half playing it mellow. His Russell stands quite small next to the freaks around him, and they regard him as a curiosity, certainly not a threat. When everyone finally has their cards on the table and Russell is released of his secret, Bernal injects a smiley-faced bravado into the proceedings.
The werewolf itself has more in common with Henry Hull’s Werewolf of London from 1935 than any other cinematic lycanthrope. KNB EFX Group provides the beastie, and he is a tangible brute. Bernal’s bottom teeth pop over the top lip. His brows are sharp and pokey. Mostly, his eyes are raging. The transformation is not necessarily what you’ve seen before, with Giacchino taunting our expectations by simultaneously showing and withholding the incident.
Clocking in at under an hour, Werewolf by Night does leave you wanting. It’s an action affair; as such, you only catch glimpses of character, but what you see is appealing. Where the plot leaves the surviving folk suggests a great change for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jack Russell and Elsa Bloodstone might not be ready for primetime Avenging, but it’s easy to consider either character appearing in a Doctor Strange sequel or the upcoming Agatha Harkness Disney+ series.
Also, Man-Thing. We need more Man-Thing. The gargantuan bog behemoth steals every sequence in which he appears. Werewolf by Night reveals just enough about the creature to establish him as a lot more than a wannabe Swamp-Thing, the competition’s more popular muck monster. Man-Thing is a staple of Marvel’s more supernatural publication corners, but too often, the red-eyed fear-eater gets dumped in forgettable work. Thanks to Michael Giacchino, Marvel now has an opportunity to pump a little strategy and purpose into their Man-Thing plans because everyone walking away from Werewolf by Night will demand more.
Marvel’s first “Special Presentation” is a monster mash. You can sense Giacchino’s glee in each frame. He’s jammed everything he loves about the genre into one singular expression. We’ve got transformations, cursed objects, cheeky sadism, jump-scares, and extreme closeup screams. Werewolf by Night is always winking, but don’t mistake its meta mind for inauthenticity. Michael Giacchino is one genuine dude, and he’s deadly serious regarding the world and characters.
Werewolf by Night premieres on Disney+ on October 7th.