Hey, did director Josh Ruben just sneakily deliver the best video game-to-movie adaptation? Granted, I know little about the VR-based multiplayer game from Ubisoft, but in terms of a launching point for a feature (and the track record of video game movies), this clever enough and often quite funny horror-ish movie delivers on multiple levels. The core mystery may be the driving focus of the film; however, the assemblage of funny people makes for a solid ensemble film with just enough going on in the writing to deliver more than just a terrorizing threat to a community.
Of course, establishing what that threat even is becomes a critical point of discussion. Not too long ago, I was writing about Jim Cummings’ excellent Wolf of Snow Hollow, so now it’s making me wonder if the best way to handle modern werewolf films is by merging mystery with humor, let alone the very concept of whether or not a supernatural threat even exists. Putting an eye towards toxic behavior also seems to be a connective piece for these films as well, which makes a lot of sense given the multiple metaphors that come with the concept of werewolves.
In this film, we follow the residents of the small town of Beaverfield. Sam Richardson stars as Finn, a newly-arrived forest ranger, who quickly finds himself in over his head, as it would appear a mysterious creature is terrorizing the community. With that in mind, is it a creature or one of the town’s residents? Due to a proposed gas pipeline that has divided the citizens, among other reasons, almost everyone seems to have some kind of grudge against others.
Again, since the game is pretty thin beyond, “people must work together to discover who the killer really is,” the script by Mishna Wolff is quite clever. It establishes several broad personalities, many red herrings, and a whole attitude that rides the line of how far to lean with the tone. While I was less impressed with Ruben’s otherwise well-reviewed Scare Me from 2020, Werewolves Within finds solid footing for different comedic areas to explore, in addition to building off the idea of isolation, a theme also found in that previous film.
It’s one thing to simply put a bunch of funny people together, but it speaks more to a film that understands what it has when the hilarious lines of dialogue are backed by a strong core. For Werewolves Within, much of the time is spent establishing a motive behind sudden acts of violence. In doing that, following this set of characters means coming to understand who they are, and I was surprised to find myself appreciating a lot of the nuance found in an ensemble who all clearly have personal reasons for being sequestered to a sleepy, snowy town in Vermont.
In addition to Richardson, who does well with being an unironic nice guy and an unconventional hero, the cast also includes a winning Milana Vayntrub as a witty postal worker who is immediately game to help out Finn. As the two leads of the film, their chemistry is instant, while the film finds intriguing ways of highlighting what sets them apart (black lead in a horror film; a woman not content with poor male behavior around her).
The rest of the cast includes plenty of familiar faces, including Michael Chernus, Michael Watkins, Cheyenne Jackson, Harvey Guillén, Sarah Burns, George Basil, and Glenn Fleshler. The roles range from busybodies, to survivalists, to, well…idiots. One can see how films such as Clue had an influence, as much of the humor extends from a commitment to character, especially once the film ends up locking most of the cast within a single location. Standouts will vary, but that’s also part of the point. Much like a game, picking your favorite character means spending time finding the humor where it’s most enjoyable.
On the other end of things, Werewolves Within is a horror film to a degree. There’s a level of carnage to experience, along with many attempts at raising the level of tension. While not working to completely frighten the audience, I did appreciate just how much time was spent establishing a level of stakes and not letting the comedy overwhelm the mystery. Whether or not there is a werewolf, the film has fun in allowing many wacky characters to attempt to get themselves out of harm’s way, with jokes coming along at a good enough pace.
It is seeing how the film finds its moments for big jokes that ultimately works when considering some of the greater messaging. Mr. Rogers is quoted at the start of the film, and while random at first, there is a strong through-line about the essence of goodness. It comes into play, especially when learning more about certain characters. For a film rooted in some silly concepts, I was, again, impressed with a script clever enough to have certain character interactions contain more bite when looking back on them. This is a very modern film in terms of social sensibilities, and decent horror often works when it considers the attitudes of the time.
Looking beyond what Werewolves Within represents as a social experiment, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. A hilarious lineup of talent is game for making fools of themselves, adding to the comic joy coming out of this spooky farce. Even the look of the film adds to its strength. The wintery shots of the town have a way of presenting both the sunnier side of things and the ominous. For a movie bent on messing with the audience by amping up the comedy and horror at various times, there’s plenty of good takeaways overall and just enough going on to keep an audience thinking about it after the fact.