Review: ‘Werewolf By Night’ thrills on Disney +, stars shine in messy ‘Amsterdam’

Laura Donnelly in Werewolf by Night (Disney +)

There is a darker and campier corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the new Disney + Halloween special presentation “Werewolf By Night” introduces it to us in fine and fun fashion.

The 53-minute, mature-audience mini-movie introduces characters and concepts that crept into the Marvel Universe in the 1970s when the Comics Code Authority (CCA) lost its fangs, and creepier material such as werewolves, zombies, and vampires were once again allowed to spill off the four-color comic pages for the first time since being regulated out of the industry in the 1950s by McCarthyist tactics.

Marvel editor/publisher Stan Lee was a huge fan of the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and ‘40s. He cribbed ideas from the serialized Frankenstein and Wolf-Man films of his youth in creating characters like the Amazing Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk in the early days of the Marvel Universe in the 1960s.

When the CCA loosened its restrictions in the 1970s, Lee capitalized and had his artists and writers mine the super-natural so well-recognized anti-heroes like Dracula, the Monster of Frankenstein, the Mummy and zombies could mix and mingle on his companies’ comics pages with Marvel’s ever-growing lineup of super heroes.

One of those was a loose reinterpretation of Universal Studios’ Wolf-Man character as Jack Russell in the comic “Werewolf By Night.”

Noted composer and first-time director Michael Giacchino and screenwriters Heather Quinn and Peter Cameron crib the plot from the 1974 British horror/mystery “The Beast Must Die!” in fashioning Marvel’s first foray into horror, but they do so quite affectionately and effectively.

Upon the death of famous monster-hunter Ulysses Bloodstone, other noted monster hunters gather for a contest to see who can capture a monster set loose in a maze to earn the right to possess the late Bloodstone’s glowing red jewel that provides the owner with increased vitality and other super-natural abilities.

Among those gathered are Jack Russell (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly), the deceased Bloodstone’s estranged daughter. Russell, who is noted to have the most kills of any of the hunters present, is a werewolf and the contest is a set-up to capture him and also put Elsa in her place by Ulysses’ widow Verusa (Harriet Sansom Harris).

The creature known as Man-Thing or Ted is the monster in the maze, as seen in a quick clip in the trailer.

The special is fast-paced and packs a lot of story and exposition into its 53 minutes, but it’s also action-packed and funny. The special is mostly shot in black and white to mimic the Universal monster movies it honors, and that likely allows it to get away with more gore than one might expect from a Marvel or Disney + production.

Likewise the language is a bit more rough than standard Marvel fare. It probably would be R-rated if it were shown in theaters.

The tone, however, is more spooky and action-packed than scary, but I’d be wary of allowing young children to watch it.

Giacchino directs action well. The werewolf’s fighting moves have been brought to life from the comics and rather seamlessly. The action left me wanting to see more.

The special is creepily composed by cinematographer Zoe White, who blends the grindhouse style of the 1970s with the look of 1940s Universal horror in a most effective way.

The werewolf costume and make-up looks practical and is very reminiscent of the comics, although I assume it was likely touched up by CGI.

Bernal’s Russell is at first mysterious, but later delightfully goofy in a fun scene toward the end of the special. I would like to see more of him, Man-Thing, and Elsa Bloodstone, and the special seems to point at that being a possibility.

“Werewolf By Night” might not be for everyone. Those seeking hardcore or serious horror might be disappointed, and it might be a bit strong for those of trick-or-treating age. However for me, Giacchino hit all the right notes with a scary but fun tone that’s a sweet Halloween treat for teens and adults.

(TV-Mature) 53 min.
Grade: B


Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington in Amsterdam(20th Century Studios)

Director David O Russell’s latest film “Amsterdam” is a doozy of a ride that left me a bit dazed, a little confused, and maybe entertained?

The film is a bit daft and a little whacky, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but its tone and the plot’s convolutions certainly caught me a bit off guard.

The film is set in 1933 with flashbacks to 1918 when World War I was being waged. Russell, who also wrote the script, keeps the viewer either on the edge of their seat or off balance, depending on how you’d rather describe the imaginative film that flits back and forth between silliness and satire.

The movie boasts an impressive cast with Christian Bale’s physician Burt, John David Washington as his best friend and old war buddy Harold and Margot Robbie as Valerie, a gorgeous nurse they met while on the mend in a Belgian hospital after suffering injuries in the war. They became even better friends after the war when they spent time together in Amsterdam, exploring personal liberation among the artistic set.

Fifteen years later, the three find themselves embroiled in a plot to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt with wealthy business executives that actually was a historical event known as “The Business Plot,” but Russell took great liberties with the truth in telling his comedic take on the events. They also become the chief suspects in the murder of U.S. Senator Bill Meekins.

The movie borders on madcap silliness that may be a bit high strung, but the cast is imminently easy to watch. Bale, Washington, and Robbie are supported by a who’s who of stars in character roles, such as Robert DiNero, Micheal Shannon, Zoe Saldana, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Rami Malek, and Anya Taylor-Joy.

The performances make the movie interesting, but Russell’s plot is contorted and his aimless direction doesn’t help matters. The movie is kind of a mess, but I’ve not quite decided if it is a glorious or ridiculous one.

(R) 2 hr. 14 min.
Grade: C-

New in Local Theaters

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Malco Pinnacle

Malco Pinnacle celebrates ‘Halloween’ early

In anticipation of the opening of “Halloween Ends” on Oct. 14, the Malco Pinnacle Cinema in Rogers is showing the 2018 version of “Halloween” and “Halloween Kills” this week. They are the first two films of the trilogy that picks up where John Carpenter’s original 1978 thriller “Halloween” left off.

“Halloween” from 2018 was actually fairly well reviewed for a horror sequel. Michael Myers’ original survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) comes to what we thought might be her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

“Halloween Kills” from 2020 continues Myers’ mayhem in the less well-reviewed middle chapter of this trilogy that makes his feud with Strode even more personal if that’s possible.

If you are inclined to revisit these films, or see them for the first time, watching on the big screen is a great option.

Classic Corner – Favorite werewolf movies

It’s the spookiest month of the year, and with the Disney + release of “Werewolf by Night,” it’s an appropriate time to consider our fine furry and fanged friends, werewolves and my favorite movies featuring them.

The Wolf-Man

While the 1941 version of “The Wolf-Man” wasn’t the first werewolf talkie — that distinction belongs to 1935’s “The Werewolf of London” — it is the most influential. Starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the cursed Larry Talbot, “The Wolf-Man” established most of the familiar lore we associate with the flea-ridden beasts thanks to screenwriter Curt Siodmak.

While Siodmak often told reporters he did intensive research on the condition of lycanthropy when writing the screenplay, it seems he conjured most of it up himself, while lifting the rest from Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula.”

No matter where Siodmack got the ideas, he put them together in fairly effective fashion in his screenplay. “The Wolf Man” was a B film, but the story and the cast — which included Claude Raines, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya — was strong enough to make the movie memorable.

However, it was the distinctive make-up by Universal Studios chief makeup artist Jack Pierce, and Chaney’s forlorn performance that made the film a true classic. Pierce’s makeups for the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and other Universal monsters remain iconic all these years later.

Forty years after its debut, The Wolf Man inspired two of the better werewolf films ever made by two fine directors Jon Landis and Joe Dante.

The Howling

Dante’s “The Howling” made it to the theaters first in April of 1981, opening with a chilling scene of a television newswoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) used as bait to capture a serial killer in a porno theater.

Traumatized by the ordeal, White and her husband meet with a therapist, who advises her to go on retreat to “The Colony,” a secluded countryside resort. Little do she and her husband know that werewolves are terrorizing that resort.

Today the werewolf transformations from the movie come off as a bit cheesy, but 40 years ago, they were quite thrilling. The film’s climax and ending remains great fun in a horrific type of way.

An American Werewolf in London

In August of 1981, Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” debuted, and a horror classic was born.

Landis and special effects master Rick Baker, who won the first Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for the film, were big fans of “The Wolf-Man.” They not only paid homage to the original, but they also took the concept so much further.

Baker’s transformation scene is brutal and graphic and set the standard for onscreen metamorphosis prior to the development of computer-generated effects. Many horror fans would argue Baker’s animatronic and practical-transformation effects in the film are still superior to CGI.

The gory film has several genuine scares including the scene where David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are viciously mauled on the foggy mores by a werewolf. It’s perhaps topped by a claustrophobic scene where the werewolf stalks a passenger in a deserted London subway.

David survives the attack and becomes cursed. Jack dies, but returns as a decaying ghoul, haunting David and advising him to take his life before he turns into a wolf and commits murder.

Landis, who also directed “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Trading Places,” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, masterfully blended humor and horror together for an outstanding movie.

He effectively used such lunar-themed tunes as Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and Van Morrison’s “Moondance” to enhance the mood of the film.

All three of these films are fun, but “An American Werewolf in London” is the pride of the pack.