Welcome to Script to Pieces, a recurring feature at Wicked Horror where we look at the best, most interesting and at times most unbelievable horror movies that never happened. Sometimes these will be productions that never came together at all, other times, they will be original incarnations that were completely different from what we wound up with. Each should be fascinating in its own way, because the stories of movies that never see the light of day can sometimes be even more interesting than the stories of those that do.
During the 1950s, there was a parental outrage against comic books in a way very similar to how violent films and video games have been treated over time. A book titled Seduction of the Innocent explored comic books as the sole reason for juvenile delinquency and even suggested kids were getting asthma because they would stay inside to read comic books instead of going outside and playing with their friends like normal, healthy children should do. Parents and teachers ate it all up. And thus, the Comics Code was born.
Under the Comics Code, all titles were heavily regulated and censored. The rules were strict and numerous. No one could get away with virtually anything. Characters couldn’t die, punching was allowed but had to be very limited, and monsters were out the window. Words like “vampire” and “werewolf” could not be spoken at all.
But when the code eventually lifted in the 1970s, Marvel got into horror comics in a big, bad way. Launching titles like Tomb of Dracula, Monster of Frankenstein, The Living Mummy, Man-Thing, Ghost Rider, Vampire Tales and more, they became almost as much of a horror empire as a superhero empire.
Of those comics, Werewolf by Night proved to be among the most endearing. Unlike the Dracula and Frankenstein books, this could not re-tell a classic story or character, because Universal owned the rights to The Wolf Man. Instead, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog had to create an original werewolf character for the Marvel Universe. It was a perfect combination, because the idea of a werewolf was already perfectly suited to that world. The Incredible Hulk is essentially a werewolf story without a werewolf in it. It’s about a man doomed to transform into a destructive monster that he cannot control. Many of the X-Men and other heroes in the House of Marvel consider their powers to be a curse, not a blessing.
Werewolf by Night was destined to fit right in. It’s a different approach to werewolves, too. Jack Russell is doomed to become a werewolf from birth. Lycanthropy has run in his family since the 1790s, when an ancestor of his was bitten by a werewolf imprisoned by Dracula. It’s lasted all the way down the line, and becoming a werewolf is simply Jack’s fate.
When Marvel started getting into the movie game, the first success they had was with their horror properties. It only seemed natural that other Marvel horror books would be eyed for adaptations after Blade became a hit. That became a franchise, introducing the Nighstalkers in the third entry and while Blade Trinity was preparing to be released, Man-Thing was entering production. It seemed to be a great time to be a fan of Marvel’s horror characters.
Man-Thing was the first of a deal with Lionsgate to produce potentially dozens of films based on Marvel Comics characters. The Punisher was also included in this deal and saw release in 2004. Man-Thing was initially intended for a wide theatrical release. It even had a three issue prequel comic from Marvel tying directly into the events of the movie. But abysmal test screenings made this a less and less likely outcome. Eventually, it seemed Man-Thing would go straight-to-video or even be shelved altogether, but neither of those things wound up happening.
Instead, Man-Thing made its premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel as one of their Sci-Fi Originals. Screenwriter Hans Rodionoff had also been working on an adaptation of Werewolf by Night since 2002. That was regaining interest at the time with the possibility that it could potentially premiere on Sci-Fi as well if Man-Thing proved to be a success. The plan from the beginning, though, was for Werewolf by Night to premiere as a theatrical film, similar to Blade.
It’s worth noting that the film would apparently be taking a very faithful approach to the character and the title, as the official synopsis at the time read: “On his eighteenth birthday, a young man discovers that he is the latest in line to suffer from a family curse of lycanthrope.” In the comics, Jack is also doomed to take on the family curse on his 18th birthday.
Rodionoff described his approach as “about a guy trying to figure out who he is and what his place is. It’s kind of an inter-racial love story, almost.” He also noted that it was the character work that was the most important and that if you took the werewolf out, “You’d still have a really cool movie.”
At some point, Chocolat screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs was brought on to write the adaptation. There’s very little connective tissue between those two things, so it’s anyone’s guess what his take would have been.
At some point in time, Stan Lee joked that it was ridiculous to option Werewolf by Night as a movie when someone could just make a werewolf movie, change the title and save themselves the trouble and money of making it an actual Marvel adaptation.
Amazingly, Lee himself would take his own advice on that years later, optioning a movie titled Werewolf instead of Werewolf by Night, which was then planned to be directed by Joe Johnston in 2015, after his nightmarish shoot on Universal’s remake of The Wolfman.
Whether or not that had any effect on getting a Werewolf by Night movie off the ground is hard to say. In this case, it simply seems to be a case of everything coming together at the wrong time. Werewolf by Night only truly gained steam around the releases of Blade Trinity and Man-Thing, but both of those movies proved to be colossal critical and financial failures. It was harder to get the movie off the ground at that point.
Since then, however, Jack Russell has made several appearances in shows like Ultimate Spider-Man and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. so here’s hoping that some of this newfound recognition could help this long-abandoned film become a reality.