“Listening is where love begins…”
…So, I need you all to listen up when I say that director Josh Ruben (Scare Me) has delivered the funniest werewolf film ever made with his sophomore feature, Werewolves Within. Period.
Based on the video game of the same name from Ubisoft, written by Mishna Wolff and having just premiered at Tribeca, Werewolves Within is set in the middle of nowhere mountain town of Beaverfield, where Finn (Sam Richardson) has just arrived as the new ranger. He finds a town rigid with tension, split down the middle over whether or not they want nature killer Sam (Wayne Duvall) to build a pipeline on their property. Just about everyone in town is already what you’d call “eccentric”, but tensions become terror when a storm blocks the roads and they discover a werewolf may be among them.
And holy hell, is this movie a howling good time.
Between Ruben’s pitch perfect comedic timing, Wolff’s rich script and a cast that easily slips into their roles like wolves in sheep’s clothing, Werewolves Within is an ensemble film stacked with oddball characters who immediately endear us to them. Richardson is a loveable joy. As a man who is constantly told he is “too nice” and who is struggling to put some hair on his chest—unable to even accept that his girlfriend has very obviously broken up with him—he’s the kind of person we love to root for. Everyone brings their own charm to their parts and is hilarious in their own right, with Milana Vayntrub standing out as town “mail person” and potential love interest, Cecily. It feels wrong to call this a breakout role for Vayntrub, who already has quite a few credits to her name and is known in every household as the AT&T girl, but…this is a breakout role for Vayntrub. As with Richardson, we want to be best friends with her, and the chemistry between the two is electric.
Like an Agatha Christie novel with a werewolf, Werewolves Within takes this handful of personalities and plops them right into a situation bristling with tension and ripe with suspects. Before Finn can introduce himself to a single person, he already overhears Sam arguing with hotel owner Jeanine (Catherine Curtin), the holdout who hasn’t made up her mind on the pipeline yet—and whose missing husband was all for it. From the new to town Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson) to town nut Flint (Glenn Fleshler), who opposes the pipeline and hates people in general, everyone has their reason for why they may be the one doing the killing, to the point where you can hear Scream’s Randy shouting in your head, “everyone’s a suspect”!
Together, Ruben and Wolff weave a tightly knit murder mystery containing the best pieces of similar films which have come before. Werewolves Within has all of the quirkiness of Clue or Knives Out, combined with the lycanthropic mystery of films such as The Beast Must Die or Howling V. In Werewolves Within, our cast is hunted through a labyrinthine premise full of twists and turns, where the minotaur monster may or may not be a werewolf. That right there is the key to what makes Werewolves Within so riveting.
Wolff’s script takes a more interesting approach to the full moon loving beast, focusing less on the monster and instead expanding on the theme at the heart of so many werewolf stories: the idea that we, as people, all have the potential to be a monster deep down. Werewolves Within is strangely timely, coming at a moment in which our nation has been savagely split down the middle and trust is a nearly forgotten word. Ruben’s film doesn’t center around conflicts between liberals and conservatives, but there are hints at where these people fall—such as town drama queen Trish (Michaela Watkins) mentioning how she thinks Antifa vandalized a sign in her yard—and that only works to fuel the paranoia that later comes when the characters must figure out who amongst them is lying about what they really are. Greed, jealousy, anger…all of the worst human emotions come out in Werewolves Within, begging the question of what’s worse, a monster that wears its claws on the outside, or on the inside.
Ruben has already proven himself as a talented director, and with his sophomore feature, his claws are out, and his skills shine. Clever direction keeps whatever or whoever is doing the killing out of sight, while also providing clues that make for an experience with a ton of re-watch value. Great patience and care are put into building the characters and keeping us guessing, letting the suspense simmer. While the tension never quite reaches the boiling point which the premise is capable of, going for comedy more often than dread and terror, Werewolves Within never feels slow, running on all fours with exceptional editing from Brett W. Bachman.
Where Werewolves Within may lose some viewers is in its preference for psychological horror comedy over werewolf carnage. This is not your average werewolf film. Not at all. If you’re going in expecting a ton of gore and frightening werewolf mayhem, you should check those expectations at the door along with the fur coats. Between this and Scare Me, Ruben has shown himself to have a propensity for minimalism, relying on a talented cast instead of effects driven chaos. This is a character-driven werewolf movie, through and through.
It’s also a howl-a-minute riot, and one of the best video game adaptations ever made. Which, let’s be honest, low bar, but still.
Werewolves Within barks more than it bites when it comes to effective scares, but an intriguing mystery combined with a colorful cast—I haven’t even mentioned the always incredible Harvey Guillen, everyone is just that good—offer all of the elements needed for a must-see werewolf mystery. All that’s missing is a werewolf break.
In light of all of the above and Ruben’s passion for quirky horror comedies, all we can do now is cross our claws and hope he finally gets offered that Darkman reboot.
Be a good neighbor, listen to what everyone is saying, and give Werewolves Within a watch.
Werewolves Within arrives in theaters on June 25th and on Digital/VOD on July 2nd from IFC Films.
By Matt Konopka