Superheroes owe a debt to monster movies. Universal’s iconic monster franchise drew the blueprints for today’s Marvel crossovers, and some of the superhero flicks that augured the genre’s 21st-century boom were the horror-tinged Spawn (1997) and Blade (1998). Superheroes and monsters are kindred spirits. Their stories revolve around beings who, through wild and often tragic circumstances, are changed in ways that make them question their humanity.
That bond was tightened at D23 when Marvel Studios premiered the trailer for Werewolf by Night, a “Disney+ Special Presentation” (essentially a made-for-TV movie) featuring some of Marvel’s spookiest characters. With black-and-white cinematography, meretricious production design, overdramatic lighting, and an intentionally grainy picture, Werewolf by Night will depart from the slicker aesthetics of the MCU to evoke the look and feel of monster movies made almost a century ago.
Nothing about Werewolf by Night looks “real,” even by Marvel standards. And that’s precisely the point.
But Marvel isn’t the first franchise to drop its superheroes into a world of horror. In 1996 an episode of Power Rangers Zeo, “It Came From Angel Grove,” did its own horror special as it released a superhero into a surreal world of vampires, mummies, and yes, even werewolves.
Before the release of Werewolf by Night, it’s worth checking out how another superhero universe paid homage to Universal’s classic monsters — and how it might have actually done a better job of staying authentic than Marvel’s extravagant streaming special.
“It Came From Angel Grove” is effectively a Halloween episode of the sequel series to the more iconic Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It centers on mild-mannered Adam Park (Johnny Yong Bosch), the Green Ranger, who burns the midnight oil studying for a test. While taking a break, Adam flips on the TV and catches a fictional old monster flick, The Bride of Hackensack. The premise teased by the movie’s narrator is outlandish: “What happens when a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy, and a witch team up to stop a mad doctor and his evil bride?”
An exhausted Adam falls asleep and is woken by former enemies, the alien witch Rita Repulsa (Barbara Goodson) and crimson-skinned Lord Zedd (Robert Axelrod), who tell him their rivals, the Machine Empire, have taken over Earth. The details would require a treatise on Power Rangers lore, but the episode sends Adam on a fetch quest for items like “the cape of a vampire” and “the hair of a werewolf” to reverse the Machine Empire’s rule.
Adam’s quest takes him to disparate settings that channel the world of Power Rangers Zeo through old black and white gothic horror. The teens’ after-school hangout becomes a smoky tavern, while fellow Power Rangers have become the monsters Adam must rob. Tommy the Red Ranger (Jason David Frank) is a vampire with an awful Eastern European accent, while Rocky the Blue Ranger (Steve Cardenas) is a gentleman with an awful English accent whose nickname, Harry, means he’s a werewolf.
The episode is a lean 21 minutes, but “It Came From Angel Grove” isn’t just Power Rangers doubling down on its cheesiness. It’s an effective exercise in a show departing from its established style to pay homage to a cinematic institution. It also illuminates just how much Power Rangers — and superhero media as a whole — owes to monster horror. Special effects, a cornerstone of superhero movies, built on the innovative work of people like Kenneth Strickfaden, whose career started with the 1931 classic Frankenstein. Before CGI, Strickfaden found unique ways to light sequences like Frankenstein’s awakening. As Variety explained upon the release of Frankenstein:
“Laboratory sequence detailing the creation of the monster patched up of human odds-and-ends is a smashing bit of theatrical effect, taking place in this eerie setting during a violent mountain storm in the presence of the scientist’s sweetheart and others, all frozen with mortal fright.”
As a low-budget, non-union production with elements lifted directly from a Japanese kids’ series, Power Rangers is hardly representative of cutting-edge effects. But that only made it easier for the show to copy Universal’s movies, which famously trafficked in on-camera tricks and kitschy aesthetics. The zippers on the backs of the Power Rangers’ costumes aren’t too far removed from the glue keeping the fur on Lon Chaney Jr.’s face.
Werewolf by Night looks like Marvel shot the production with its usual array of modern digital cameras, giving it a pristine look and feel even with post-production effects that doctor the shots to resemble grainy film. Power Rangers Zeo shot with 1996’s standard 4:3 aspect ratio, the same ratio most of Universal’s monster movies are still viewed today. Strangely, this is one element where Power Rangers’ very modest production value serves it better than the bottomless pockets of Marvel Studios.
“It Came From Angel Grove,” available on the official Power Rangers YouTube channel, is an easy watch. Non-Power Rangers fans might be lost in the specifics of who these characters are and how they relate to each other, and the ending offers an underwhelming resolution. But there’s an undeniable playfulness to it, and it has the exact vibes that appear to await Marvel fans in Werewolf by Night.
Marvel may not make a special like Werewolf by Night again, and Marvel’s track record suggests it will always resolve its narratives with what’s familiar than what’s interesting. The studio has drawn criticisms for recycling plots, which raises questions about how bold Werewolf by Night will actually be. Will it be a serious homage to monster movies, or is Marvel’s willingness to experiment only skin deep? But if Power Rangers offered any sort of a preview, it will be hard to resist its goofy, comic thrills.
Werewolf by Night will hit Disney+ on October 7.