Gael Garcia Bernal's Jack and Man-Thing in "Werewolf by Night".

Can We Nerd Out about the Visual Design of “Werewolf by Night”?

I did not have Frasier’s agent becoming the best MCU villain, but here we are. If you haven’t heard of it, “Werewolf by Night” is one the most under-advertised entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – or maybe the only one. It makes sense why. Marvel’s superhero films are extremely adaptable to different genres so long as they keep a colorful core visual style and comedic timing intact. There’s no place in that for a stylistically unique black-and-white, occasionally gory horror experiment that recalls classic monster movies.

The Halloween special seems to be an outlier that Disney doesn’t know how to quantify. At an hour long, it’s neither a series nor a movie, though I’ll call it a movie because it has the heft of one. It ties into no pre-existing MCU franchises (that may be a bonus for some). Yet it’s still canon and may introduce a few new heroes who’ll return later.

I will never tire of Laura Donnelly being mildly perturbed someone had the gall to run into her fist over and over again. A natural action hero and star of “The Nevers”, here she plays Elsa Bloodstone. She’s returned home to a gathering of monster hunters in order to challenge them for her late father’s powerful, stat-boosting gem. Gael Garcia Bernal is an arthouse legend who’s starred in “Mozart in the Jungle” and “Babel”. He has that rare quality of being able to infuse a film’s worth of character work into just a single scene. It works beautifully for him as an enigmatic and empathetic monster hunter.

Who’s the villain, though? Elsa’s mother Verussa, played by Harriet Sansom Harris. She steals the show, doing a legendary job of gnashing teeth at actors, scenery, and the human vocal range alike. Not that the MCU has a stable of tremendous villains (it still has to import its best over from 2000s Spider-Man), but she almost immediately becomes the best. Her and Killmonger, pretty much. I’d watch that show. And I knew I recognized her, but from where? She was the titular character’s diabolical temptress of an agent on “Frasier”. Naturally.

“Werewolf by Night” is phenomenal. One reason I don’t have a problem treating an hourlong like this as a film is because I think it immediately becomes one of the MCU’s best. As good as many Marvel projects are, their movies and series often have massive pacing issues. “Werewolf by Night” feels lean and effortless, which is pretty astonishing considering how much effort must have gone into achieving its visual design.

This is an exercise in style, but not an empty one. “Werewolf by Night” is built to pay homage to the dozens of black-and-white Universal monster movies of the 30s and 40s (“Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Mummy”, “The Wolf Man”, just to name a few). Though they may have frightened moviegoers at the time, watching them today isn’t necessarily a scary experience. Instead, they bring deeply moody atmospheres, a patient sense of storytelling, and a comforting level of thrill. They don’t offer the terror of horror movies since, but they can feel like an autumn walk on a gray afternoon: atmospheric enough to want to slow down and imagine a world where what scares us is still fun. “Werewolf by Night” captures this so well. I didn’t find it scary, but I did find it soaked in atmosphere and that sense of thrill at falling in love with its world.

Some might be put off that it moves like a modern film. There are tracking shots, quick edits, and some of the clipped dialogue that reflects a typical MCU movie. There aren’t long takes, the classic two shots, or the kind of vignetted close-ups that helped define genre cinema of the 30s and 40s. “Werewolf by Night” draws lessons from a different era of horror, but it’s still not a modern one.

The black-and-white cinematography is impressively done, with unique and well-coordinated production design. There’s a focus on a tremendous amount of light sources on every set and in every shot, but the whole effect still feels very dark. It never is, the whole thing’s overwhelmingly lit, but by using so much light in concentrated places, any other texture feels dark simply by being in negative space. This is where the actors tend to move and be framed, so everything they do feels like it happens in darkness despite being so well lit. The whole thing feels like night when you can see everything with crystal clarity (many current fantasy efforts could learn from this).

This is an effect that’s not often used in black-and-white film. Those Universal monster movies tended to rely on brightly lit foreground spaces holding the actors. The approach was theatrical. Backdrops were dark and lighting was foregrounded to provide sharp contrasts. Look at this shot from “Dracula” for a famous example of the actor clearly highlighted against a dark backdrop.

The approach in “Werewolf by Night” is much closer to that used in a style of European horror called giallo. The hyperviolent and sometimes supernatural detective stories weren’t shot in black-and-white, but they often relied on placing the actor in the darkest of two unique tones. “Suspiria” alone utilized blue-and-red, green-and-black, lavender-and-blue, yellow-and-brown, the list goes on.

A brightly lit shot can be made to seem dark in any two-color scheme, so long as the actor exists in the “negative space” of the lighting – the part that’s underlit. That sounds pretty easy, but it means every shot has to be precisely coordinated with the production design. Any light or shadow in the wrong place, or any backdrop that’s light or dark in the wrong place, and the effect fails.

Giallo is hardly the only genre that uses this. Most of 80s horror owes a huge debt to giallo, and it’s almost certainly influenced American filmmaking more. And of course, early 2010s spy and action movies decided the visual effect could take the place of a screenplay. Yet each time it’s replicated, the effect gets watered down.

It’s surprising to see it embodied again so fully and originally. This is director Michael Giacchino’s first directorial effort after his considerable work as a film composer. He nails this visual style, thanks in large part to cinematographer Zoe White and production designer Maya Shimoguchi. They shoot the entire film translating this exacting design philosophy to black-and-white.

Moreover, it’s not the same trick over and over again. Highlights in the texture of a coffin feel velvety. Lights in the garden where the hunters track their prey are shown in several small globes or individual large cubes, whereas indoor lighting is concentrated in distant horizontal and vertical bars. The amount of coordination to constantly overlight in this variety of ways yet achieve the feeling of foregrounded darkness is exceptional.

There is one nitpick I’d bring against “Werewolf by Night”. The fight choreography is straightforward and grounded for both an MCU film and a monster movie, which I like, but I am done with the MCU’s addiction to having women do flying scissor leg takedowns instead of just kicking someone. At least the werewolf joins in on dodge-rolling like he’s playing “Dark Souls”. What gore there is (a lot for an MCU film, very little by horror standards) could have felt more impactful if joined to more deliberate fight choreo. That’s really my only quibble.

Among other things, “Werewolf by Night” highlights just how completely Universal mishandled their venerable classic monster franchises. Remember, “Dracula Untold” was the start of their shared Dark Universe, until it bombed, at which point the Tom Cruise “The Mummy” remake was the soft reboot of their shared Dark Universe, until that bombed and they realized the Dark Universe was a terrible idea, at which point they scrapped it until the excellent Elisabeth Moss-starrer “The Invisible Man” was a critical and box office success due to the freedom of its standalone nature…so they immediately made noises about the Dark Universe being back on. To think, they killed Guillermo Del Toro’s “Frankenstein” for all that.

I’m more impressed at the ability of “Werewolf by Night” to create and land its exacting visual design than I’ve been by any CGI feat in the MCU. Yes, they’ve done things that are more technologically impressive, groundbreaking, and much more expensive, while this is an approach mastered in the 70s through cinematography and production design. Yet it’s also an approach rarely achieved in such a qualitative way, let alone translated into black-and-white. “Werewolf by Night” is impressive for how incredible an artistic feat it is to nail that look not just for a scene, but for an hour straight in so many different yet consistent ways. It wouldn’t mean much if the film around it wasn’t good, but that 1970s design philosophy is utilized to bring the joyously thrilling feeling of those 1930s monster movies alive again. I think a lot of the MCU’s work is good, but it’s rare I walk away from one of its two-and-half hour movies or six-plus episode series thinking, “I want more”. I want more of “Werewolf by Night”.

You can watch “Werewolf by Night” on Disney+.

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