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Marvel Horror Special Werewolf by Night Finds Inspiration in the Classics for Its Monster Madness

Director Michael Giacchino and co-executive producer Brian Gay invite you to experience their "fun, one-night adventure" that reanimates characters from 1970s Marvel horror comics.

by | October 6, 2022 | Comments

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For Michael Giacchino, the Oscar-winning composer of Pixar’s Up, there was always one Marvel character he wanted to bring to life: Werewolf by Night. Even Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was surprised by the choice when he and Giacchino discussed the possibility of doing a project together.

“He was like, ‘Really? Where’d that come from?'” he recalled when Rotten Tomatoes spoke to him about Werewolf by Night, the live-action Marvel Halloween special he directed for Disney+. He remembered explaining to the Marvel chief: “I loved it as a kid, and I still have my Werewolf by Night comics. And I just think it’s such an interesting character, and I feel like there’s a way to do it in today’s world that we can really have some fun with it, and explore this idea of struggle and affliction and how people react to that — not only how did the characters themselves react, [but] how did the people around them react to it?”

Debuting in 1972, Werewolf by Night was part of Marvel Comics push into horror-tinged titles following a change in the way the Comics Code Authority viewed horror. The comic book industry’s self-governing standards and practices body was created in response to government scrutiny regarding horror comics from Marvel and DC competitor EC Comics, the publisher of Tales from the Crypt and Mad Magazine following the CCA’s ban on horror. But 15 or so years later, with EC entirely a Mad enterprise and the paranoia about horror comics nearly forgotten, Marvel (and DC) got back into the creepier side of things.

Gael García Bernal in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

Werewolf by Night centered on Jack Russell, the descendant of lycanthropes who discovers the truth as his mother lay dying after a car crash. Drifting from place to place while trying to minimize the damage possible from his condition, he also becomes involved in other mystical Marvel problems and avoiding the Commission, a group interested in the secret of his curse. And being a Marvel Comics character, he also crosses paths with the likes of Doctor Strange, Mutants like Sabretooth, and others — he also introduced the world to Moon Knight in 1975 — but the emphasis on the monstrous in its original run always fascinated Giacchino.

“I love that whole era in the ’70s of the Marvel horror comics,” he told us. “The artwork is incredible, the writing is incredible. And it was such a nice sort of alternative to the superhero stuff, which I loved as well, but I always found myself sort of gravitating back to this era when I was a kid, and coming into these areas.”

That fascination remained strong right through his meeting with Marvel Studios.

“Monsters aren’t something you guys have really explored, other than just being bad guys in the films,” he recalled saying to Feige. “To me, monsters aren’t bad guys. They are people with problems that need help. And I would want it to approach it from that point of view. So that’s really how it all started.”

Laura Donnelly in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

The special stars Gael García Bernal as Jack Russell, who joins a strange wake/monster hunt for reasons all his own. It also features Laura Donnelly as Elsa Bloodstone, a more recent addition to the horror realm at Marvel Comics, and Harriet Sansom Harris as Verussa.

Armed with memories of some other Marvel horror comics like The Monster of Frankenstein and The Tomb of Dracula — and movies like 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein and 1941’s The Wolf Man — Giacchino set out not only to introduce Werewolf by Night to a whole new audience, but bring a certain horror tone to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — one more classical and, at times, celebratory of the practical limitations of that older era.

“All those films were shot on sets, sometimes borrowed sets in between other people’s productions. When you watch The Most Dangerous Game, it was shot on the sets of King Kong, that was shooting at the same time,” he explained. “I thought there would be a way to invoke what I loved as a kid about those movies, but do it in a modern sense.”

One such fusion of the modern and classical is the Werewolf itself, an astonishing practical effect. From day one, Giacchino knew he wanted Jack Russell’s wolf form be a makeup appliance marrying his handsome actor to that classical horror world.

“For me, to get the feeling I wanted, it needed to be real. It needed to be someone right there. It needed to be Gael in makeup, wearing the prosthetics,” he said. The prosthetics, while based on methods a century old, were updated by KNB EFX Group, who also provided practical creature makeups for a wide variety of films and TV shows, including, of course, The Walking Dead.

“They did an incredible job and they really, really killed it,” Giacchino said. “And it was so fun because we got to explore so many of those old school techniques of what they would do [in the ’30s and ’40s] to bring these things to life.”


(Photo by Marvel Studios)

Approaching those older techniques with new angles also supported Giacchino’s gut feeling that much of the special had to be as real and as practical as possible to evoke that classical feeling.

“If you put [the actors] in a set, you put the monsters right in front of them, then suddenly they have something that they can just lean into,” he explained, noting that the quick shooting schedule also inspired the sensation of old monster movies. “That was also part of this, let’s just lean into the technique of the old school filmmakers and see what we can do with this.”

Another older tradition employed on the special: presenting the film in black & white. While it was something Giacchino wanted to do from the start, there was some uncertainty about it.

“It wasn’t until we were done shooting, [and] we had a version of the film that we were able to watch together. We sat down with Kevin Feige and everyone else and we watched it. And when it was over, he looked over and says, ‘I guess we have to do this in black and white, don’t we?'” At the same time, Giacchino said every care was made to treat footage that could have been in color as “real [a black-and-white] experience as possible.”

Al Hamacher and Harriet Sansom Harris in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

According to co-executive producer Brian Gay, Giacchino’s old-school sensibility also lent itself to a new format for the studio: the one-hour holiday special. Although it still exists to some extent, the holiday-themed special (whether that holiday be Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas) evokes fond memories for certain generations raised in a broadcast television reality — particularly when accompanied by the old CBS Special Presentation bumper Marvel honored, after a fashion, in the Werewolf by Night trailer.

“Things like that felt like it was an event [that] happens once a quarter, once a year, that sort of thing. And we liked it and we looked around [and realized] no one’s really doing this,” Gay explained. “So what if we do it? Can we do it? And we all looked at each other and said, ‘might as well try!'”

He credited Giacchino with getting the idea immediately and going so far as to score the Special Presentation bumper seen in the trailer.

Gael García Bernal in WEREWOLF BY NIGHT key art

(Photo by Marvel Studios)

“[The special] felt like a fun way to introduce a character,” Gay added. While Werewolf by Night acts as a “Marvel One-Shot” of sorts to introduce Jack Russell to the cinematic universe, it also serves as an opportunity to reveal “there are [classical] monsters in the MCU.”

Of course, there long-term effect of that may not be felt for some time. That said, the debuts of Moon Knight, Werewolf by Night, and, eventually, Blade suggests a monster-movie corner of the MCU will be a larger concern in the phases ahead.

For the moment, though, Werewolf By Night is here to introduce Jack, Elsa, and at least one more Marvel horror character to the streaming world.

“It’s its own fun, one-night adventure,” Gay explained. “This whole thing takes place over one night. And so with that, we said, ‘OK, let’s cut loose. What’s going to happen? We got 12 hours with these characters. What trouble could they get into?’ And trouble is fun sometimes.”

89% Werewolf by Night (2022) streams on Disney+ beginning Friday, October 7.

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