The video game Werewolves Within does not look a whole lot like Werewolves Within, the movie written by Mishna Wolff and directed by Josh Ruben that rather unexpectedly adapts it. The game is a VR affair set in a medieval town, where you sit in a circle around other cartoony medieval folk to try and determine who is secretly the monster mauling other players during the nighttime phase. It’s the party game Werewolf, or Mafia, or whatever other name you may know it by. It is rated E for Everyone and I can read all the text on its sparse Wikipedia page without even having to scroll down. It is not what we might call a pillar of the games industry, which is perhaps why the film looks like it does — no one is here to complain about faithfulness to the mythology of a VR game from 2016. And given how creative carte blanche tends to be more fulfilling than brand fealty, Werewolves Within finds itself in the unexpected position of being one of the better video game film adaptations yet made.
The film is, first of all, a comedy rated not E for “mild fantasy violence” but (a light) R for some amount of gore and a number of swears exceeding the PG-13 allotment. It’s set in the modern day, opening with forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) driving to Beaverfield, the small wilderness town where he has been transferred, while listening to an instructional audiobook on how to better assert himself rather than being so nice all the time (one of the lessons just involves chanting “balls”).
Beaverfield turns out to be a hotbed of small-town strife, split down the middle over a potential oil pipeline where the vote must be unanimous. The characters make up a very broad range of cartoonish archetypes, from a freaky hunter (Glenn Fleshler) who radiates sovereign citizen energy to the boorish gas man (Wayne Duvall) to the local kook (Michaela Watkins) with weird hair and her husband (Michael Chernus) with wandering hands. As Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), the perky postal worker who gives Finn the grand tour and almost certainly reads everyone’s mail, explains, “Everyone here is a little questionable.”
Scare Me, the last more-comedy-than-horror film directed by Ruben, managed to extend its premise of some jerks telling scary stories in the dark through sound design and creative camera work alone, never relying on imaginary cutaways to depict the tales as they were told. Werewolves Within displays a similar knack for visual comedy through well-timed edits and shots that otherwise linger, allowing the actors to play off one another as they inhabit the same space, often while the large cast unexpectedly enters or exits the frame. It’s got a kinetic, silly, and carefully constructed quality reminiscent of something like Shaun of the Dead, though it doesn’t quite function on multiple genre levels the way that film does. The life-or-death stakes maintain some level of narrative tension — you do not necessarily want Finn to get gutted by a werewolf, and you do want to see him stop screwing things up with Cecily — but the scares rely near-exclusively on blaring soundtrack noises, which the film even seems to acknowledge are easy to abuse through an opening few minutes that wring a jump scare out of none other than Mr. Rogers.
Likewise, the mystery element is never quite involved enough to follow, with characters who exist and behave in ways that primarily serve the comedy. The most overt comparison here is going to be the recent Knives Out, which certainly did not invent the comedic whodunnit but gave the genre a shot in the arm to such a degree that it’s difficult to imagine Werewolves Within existing in this form otherwise. And where Knives Out tempered the size of its cast with simple, easily understood connections to its murder victim, even the sparse population of Beaverfield (which you can count on two hands) grows a little unwieldy when their motivations and personalities are crammed into such a short time frame. But the mystery does still work to some degree — there are enough twists and red herrings to make us doubt where an ultimately rather clever climax is going to go, retroactively justifying how things begin to drag a little on the way there.
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What I’m saying, I guess, is that Werewolves Within is functional but fun nevertheless, a decent chuckle-along even though it lacks much in the way of inventive gags outside the final stretch. But like Richardson’s flustered Finn, there’s something endearing about that unassuming quality, especially for how often other comedy/horror blends tend to go wrong for being too snide or too referential. The film keeps any winks to the audience in check beyond some quick nods to the Current Political Climate, which poke amusing little holes in an eccentric and jovial exterior. It never fully engages with these issues — Finn is a Black man in a position of authority over an extremely white populace, though there are a few prods at the hypocrisy of a wealthy liberal couple — but it also never falls into the problem Knives Out does of nudging its minorities into a kind of condescending, self-congratulatory sainthood.
Beyond its unassuming construction and tight, purposeful filmmaking, the thing Werewolves Within has above all else is its exceptional cast. The reliably expressive Richardson (R.I.P. Detroiters) reasserts himself as one of the funniest working actors in a role that might box a less capable performer into the role of a meek straight man. He sells the hell out of the handful of speeches he gets, his charismatic befuddlement mixing particularly well with Vayntrub’s cheery realist of a mailperson. The other characters stand out through sheer quality of performance, like Fleshler’s imposing hunter, Watkins’s deranged Fargo caricature, and a chirpy yoga dude played by Harvey Guillén of the What We Do in the Shadows TV series. It’s a delightful bunch without a weak link in sight. They’re folks who look the part and play it well, cast because they’re damned funny to watch and mesh so easily together as a result. Far more than just a surprisingly good video game adaptation, the economy and competence of Werewolves Within is all the more pleasant for how increasingly rare it feels.