Wondering what to watch this weekend? Though spooky season is now upon us, this week’s streaming highlights bring some unconventional horrors as well as the more standard ones. On the more traditional side is Marvel Studios’s first “special presentation”, the mid-length film Werewolf by Night, made by acclaimed composer Michael Giacchino in his directorial debut, a fun and punchy homage to both a golden age of comics and of horror cinema. On the less scary side is this week’s finest release, Catherine Called Birdy. Also happening in streaming releases this week: Prime Video releases a monumental number of Bond movies — 25, in fact — in celebration of the franchise’s 60th anniversary.
It’s not a horror film at all, but it taps into the dual nightmares of adolescence and growing up in patriarchal culture, as its plucky young protagonist Birdy has to deal with her family’s desperate plan to marry her off to dig themselves out of debt.
Read more: Everything new on Netflix in October
Released on iPlayer as part of a selection of films celebrating UK’s Black History Month, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight similarly looks at the psychological effects of repression and toxic masculinity as it follows one boy’s life via three different actors playing him at different times of his life, dealing with his fear of how people will react to knowing that he’s gay.
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Catherine Called Birdy (2022) - Prime Video (pick of the week)
Lena Dunham’s new feature takes her playfulness and whip smart screenwriting to an unexpected place in Catherine Called Birdy. The Girls creator heads to medieval England with an adaptation of Karen Cushman’s Newbery Medal–winning novel of the same name, following teenager Birdy (Bella Ramsey) who rebels against her vain, incompetent, layabout Lord father Sir Rollo (Andrew Scott), when he tries to marry her off to a wealthy man in order to rescue the family from his accrued debts.
Read more: Everything new on Prime in October
He and Birdy’s kindly mother, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), feel guilty about her decision for their daughter’s future, but thankfully, it’s not one that she simply accepts. Seen through the perspective of her diary, the story follow’s Birdy’s efforts to drive off her suitors through various schemes and deceptions, making herself unappealing as a marriage prospect by any means available to her.
Watch a clip from Catherine Called Birdy
Ramsey is astounding, taking a very different tack from her breakout role as the small but surly Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones. Birdy is sillier, more mischievous, and far more chatty, with Ramsey bringing infectiously high energy to a winsome script.
Scott and Piper are equally watchable as Birdy’s parents, with lovely chemistry between all of them, even as their faults are in plain view. It’s not a straightforward period piece of course. That much is singled out through the more sleek silhouettes of the costume design, or the Marie Antoinette-style anachronisms like the various covers of modern pop songs like 'Connection' by Elastica, performed on traditional instruments.
Dunham walks a good line between a winking modern tone and contemporary dialect and stylings, never truly feeling like a typical Sundance film has been transplanted into Medieval England. In fact it sometimes feels the other way around — the more 2020s tone leading its more medieval moments to turn into an amusing shock to the system, like Birdy wistfully lamenting that if only her uncle were her cousin, then she could marry him.
As Birdy goes about dispatching of her unsuitable suitors with her wits and impish schemes, Dunham puts, both modern day and 13th century patriarchy side-by-side, the simple act of doing so highlighting how archaic such sentiments are.
It’s not at all preachy either, naturalistically weaving these observations inbetween moments of charming comedy as well as its story of the angst and unglamorousness of early adolescence. It’s great work by a director and writer whose talent is, sadly, too often written off by those wrapped up in her public image.
Also new on Prime Video: The Sound of 007 (2022) The Sound of 007: LIVE from the Royal Albert Hall (2022), on Freevee - The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Werewolf by Night (2022) - Disney+
The Marvel cinematic universe is in something of a creative malaise. No matter what big names and talented directors and writers they pull into their orbit, the work comes out as an approximation of the same formula, with rapidly diminishing returns.
Read more: Everything new on Disney+ in October
There are just a few exceptions that prove the rule — like Black Panther, and its upcoming sequel Wakanda Forever, and then there’s Werewolf By Night. Harkening back to the Golden Age comic books, when Marvel was just as often a horror imprint as it was a superhero specialist, this medium length feature special is, perhaps surprisingly, directed by composer Michael Giacchino, best known for his colourful soundtrack compositions.
Watch a trailer for Werewolf By Night
It cleverly calls upon the tone and texture of horror films from around that time, evoking the look of classic monster movies like Frankenstein, as well as Hammer Horror and Universal monsters in the crackle of film grain (or an approximation of it) in the black and white photography and the corresponding bloom of its lighting, and through its delightful, intentionally crude, puppet work.
Following a congregation of weirdo monster hunters (Gael Garcia Bernal being one of them — further proof that Marvel Studios gets anyone it wants at this point), Giacchino’s work is short and sweet, a blessing in this ecosystem of movies that are often long and overly complicated in their connections to each other.
It’s not without its conventional Marvel tropes — groups all fighting over another maguffin, this time the Bloodstone, an item of power connected to Elsa Bloodstone’s bloodline, a dynasty of monster slayers. While it also serves as an introduction into the character of Elsa Bloodstone, and more of the horror and fantasy of Marvel’s magic users (comic fans will be thrilled at the appearance of Man-Thing as a secondary character).
Harriet Sansom Harris — a highlight wherever she appears — gives a wonderfully hammy performance as a slightly crazed and overly eager stewardess of the Bloodstone estate, who oversees the resulting, bloody battle royale on behalf of her master, the family’s half-dead patriarch.
Giacchino is known for both the bombast of his film scores and the cheek of the song titles he invents for each composition — filled with puns and long-running in-jokes. Werewolf by Night feels like it channels that attitude into one of Marvel’s more unique efforts.
Also on Disney+: The Greatest Showman (2017)
While perhaps not in keeping with the beginning of spooky season, there’s never a bad time to rewatch Barry Jenkins’s sumptuous breakout feature film Moonlight, for its sensitive story of boyhood and repressed sexuality shot with intimate care.
The story is that of a boy grappling with his own sexuality, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences both the joy and heartbreak of falling in love. Each chapter brings with it a different actor, and a different name – the boy is first known as Little, then his actual name Chiron, then Black as an adult. The different names further the distinction between these points of his life even as the actors seamlessly connect between each other’s portrayals of Chiron’s emotional turmoil.
A sensitive masterpiece, handily the best Best Picture winners in a long while.
Also new on iPlayer: Ali (2001), Queen and Slim (2019)