I don’t have enough money to gamble, but if I did, I’d be willing to bet that WEREWOLVES WITHIN is the only horror-comedy whodunnit video game adaptation that opens with an ironically spooky Mr. Rogers quote. The television icon’s emphasis on being neighborly permeates director Josh Ruben and writer Mishna Wolff’s hilarious and clever new movie. Though horror fans (myself included) often have a taste for bleak nihilism, it’s refreshing to see a genre film embrace the radical idea that being a genuinely good person is a worthy life’s purpose.
Though “horror-comedy whodunnit video game adaptation” already gives you some sense of the number of balls WEREWOLVES WITHIN is juggling at any given moment, it doesn’t give you the full picture of the chaotic joy found in this CLUE-meets-THE HOWLING send-up of small-town America. Touching on issues like xenophobia, racism, sexual harassment, environmentalism, gun control, and…well, balls, the film examines what it means to be a good neighbor through the lens of an uproarious lycanthropic murder mystery.
Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) is the new forest ranger in Beaverfield, an insular community torn over a debate whether to put a pipeline through their pristine wilderness. Mail carrier Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) shows Finn around town, filling him in on the “hot goss” about the bizarre Beaverfield residents who more than live up to Cecily’s assessment as all being “a little questionable.” Finn and Cecily have terrific chemistry, and Richardson and Vayntrub deliver their flirtatious rapid-fire dialogue with all the flair of a classic screwball comedy duo.
When the roads are blocked by a storm, the generators in town are destroyed by suspiciously claw-like slashes, and dead bodies start to turn up, Finn struggles between his natural skill as a leader and his tendency to defer to other people out of fear of offending anyone or being too assertive. Richardson is an absolute star as the “pathologically” nice Finn, perfectly balancing the character’s humor with the heart that the Mr. Rogers-esque role demands. WEREWOLVES WITHIN is still a strong ensemble piece, though, giving each actor their own moment to shine and highlight their respective character’s diabolical weirdness.
Trish (Michaela Watkins) has the bizarre over enunciation of the heavily medicated and the deeply racist: she asks Finn (the only Black resident of Beaverfield) if he celebrates Kwanzaa, somehow dragging the word out to seven or eight syllables, and when she blames Antifa for vandalizing her pro-pipeline yard sign, her pronunciation is once again truly inspired. Watkins does her best to steal the film with her mesmerizing detachment from reality. Every word out of her mouth seems to be filtered through the voicebox of a Breitbart-loving Furby. However, it’s Michael Chernus as Trish’s husband Pete who earns the film’s biggest laugh with a brilliant piece of improvisation when the town converges on the local inn to ride out their troubles.
Along with the clever script and its hilarious red herrings, the stellar cast makes this a film that rewards multiple viewings. It’s nearly impossible to catch all the wacky asides or hysterical moments of physical comedy happening in the background of every scene after just one watch. Rebecca Henderson, who plays environmental researcher Dr. Jane Ellis, is a master of popping up in humorous and unexpected places, while Glenn Fleshler’s prickly mountain man Emerson Flint rivals Trish’s knack for delivering lines with intense distrust and a fondness for fricatives. Unfiltered mechanic Gwen’s (Sarah Burns) inappropriate air guitar during a particularly tense moment is a delight, as is Harvey Guillén’s entire performance as transplanted tech millionaire Joaquim Wolfson. He turns an action as simple as taking off a pair of gloves into high comedy and gives each line of dialogue an extra twist that makes him the most memorable part of every scene he’s in.
WEREWOLVES WITHIN fires on all cylinders: the pitch-perfect combination of genres and tones comes together not just because of Wolff’s script, Ruben’s direction, and the cast’s performances. The riotous film also depends on Anna Drubich’s slyly bombastic music cues, David Tabbert’s clever costume design (including one sartorial reference that still makes me giggle), and Matt Wise’s cinematography. Neon light splashing across Finn’s face in a kitschy arcade is a highlight of the film’s visuals. The transitions are similarly dynamic, keeping the audience off balance with their blend of horror and humor. Though the film leans heavily into the comedy side of horror-comedy, there are legitimately creepy moments and plenty of tension to satisfy horror and mystery fans.
Between SCARE ME and WEREWOLVES WITHIN, Josh Ruben has carved out a delightfully specific niche for himself as king of the snowbound, socially conscious, meta horror-comedies. His new film indicts people for their greed and selfishness, showing that most people would rather die alone than work together to survive. However, through its buoyant humor and its warm lead performance from Sam Richardson, WEREWOLVES WITHIN also proves that there is hope for the world. In the immortal words of Ranger Finn, it truly is fuckin’ okay to be nice.
Tags: Anna Drubich, Catherine Curtin, Cheyenne Jackson, George Basil, Glenn Fleshler, Harvey Guillén, IFC Films, Josh Ruben, Matthew Wise, Michael Chernus, Michaela Watkins, Milana Vayntrub, Mishna Wolff, Rebecca Henderson, Sam Richardson, Sarah Burns, Video Games, Wayne Duvall, Werewolves