Review: “Werewolves Within”

Werewolves Within” isn’t like any video game adaptation I’ve ever seen. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that it was based on a video game until delving into its production after watching it. The 2016 VR game from Red Storm Entertainment and Ubisoft is set in a medieval town, where the user has to figure out which of the townsfolk is the werewolf who has been attacking them.

But director Josh Ruben and writer Mischa Wolff’s film isn’t the sort of high-budget, glossy, action-packed, star-studded affair you might expect based on previous game-to-film adaptations. “Werewolves Within” is, rather, a quirky, character-driven indie movie with a distinct aesthetic and a fearlessness to ground itself in current issues. Another thing differentiates this movie from other video game films: it’s actually really good.

The story revolves around Finn (Sam Richardson), a forest ranger newly stationed in the small town of Beaverfield. The opening scene depicts one of Beaverfield’s resident being attacked by an unseen creature, so you know that something is afoot as we start meeting the characters. Finn moves in to the local inn and meets Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), the friendly mail carrier who knows everyone and shows Finn around town, and there’s an obvious, immediate attraction between the two. There are apparently some issues—the construction of a proposed gas pipeline, for instance, has divided the town—but otherwise Finn’s first day in Beaverfield goes off without a hitch. But the next morning, one of their neighbors, Trish (Michaela Watkins) brings her dog back in from outside only to find that he has been snatched off the end of his leash. Then a mangled human body is found under the inn’s porch. As a snowstorm forces the group of neighbors to take shelter together in the inn, it becomes apparent that someone or something is after them—and that something may be inside the house.

The cast of “Werewolves Within” led by Sam Richardson as Finn, bottom right

“Werewolves Within” opens with an ominous score played over a quote from Mister Rogers. This establishes not only the darkly funny tone of the film that’s to follow, but also one of the story’s underlying themes: that it’s okay to be the nice guy, the good neighbor who helps other people. Finn’s relationship to his new surroundings and also his own identity is something that he wrestles with over the course of the film. He isn’t the macho type. He struggles to move on from a girlfriend who thought he was too clingy. But it is ultimately his drive to help others that saves the day. The fact that Finn is the only Black person in an otherwise almost entirely white town adds another dimension to the relationship between him and the townsfolk. They see him as an outsider, he doesn’t really fit in, but they have to work together to survive. Richardson is impeccably cast as the lead. His friendly face and demeanor are well-suited to the role, not to mention his comedic timing, and he is immediately likeable.

The rest of the characters are also remarkably well-cast, giving the film a variety of different personalities to work with. Vayntrub is appropriately bubbly as Cecily. Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén are a lot of fun as a couple whose tastes seem a little luxe for their rugged surroundings, while Glenn Fleshler is the definition of rugged as reclusive hunter Emerson Flint. Catherine Curtain is alternately tough and warm as inn owner Jeanine, and Rebecca Henderson is amusing as a cold, calculating doctor who comes to town investigating the murders, but who seems to know more than she’s letting on. The cast is rounded out by Michael Chernus, Sarah Burns, George Basil, and Wayne Duvall, names that may not all be recognizable but who are all worthy of attention and praise for their distinct performances that help build out the world this story is set in.

“Werewolves Within” tackles the horror, comedy, and whodunit genres, and by and large succeeds at combining all of those elements pretty spectacularly, poking fun at genre tropes while simultaneously integrating them into the story. It isn’t every actually scary, but the actors sell their characters’ fear, and the setting and production design contribute to their eerie surroundings. The snow falls in thick flakes that obscure much of the exterior, while the interior of the sprawling old inn the residents are forced to spend the night in together is the sort of creaky, eclectic space that you’d expect to see from either a mystery or a haunted house story. And this really is one of those stories where everyone is a suspect, and the script challenges the viewer to put the pieces together even as you’re laughing at its irreverent sense of humor. It didn’t completely pull it all together at the end for me, but the journey to get there is still fun, and I enjoyed seeing the extreme and occasionally unexpected ways in which their increasingly desperate circumstances pushed the characters to act.

Milana Vayntrub as mail carrier Cecily in “Werewolves Within”

And while Beaverfield is a fictional place, some of the story threads and moments of humor parallel current events in America. The pipeline that threatens to destroy the land the town sits on divides the population between heritage and so-called progress in a way that we’ve seen often in this country, particularly on land taken from the Native Americans. When we first meet Trish, her husband Pete is ranting loudly about “Antifa” defiling his yard signs voicing support for the pipeline. And when it becomes apparent later in the film that all of the neighbors are going to have to spend the night at the inn together and Finn asks how many of them have something to protect themselves, almost all of them whip out a gun in a scene that’s both hilarious and telling.

“Werewolves Within” is amusing, engaging, and suspenseful from start to finish, but what really sells it is the sincerity of its lead and its neighborly message. Finn’s big final monologue in which he states the need to “be a good neighbor” is blunt but effective, especially coming out of a year that has prompted us to be even more considerate of the safety of those around us. “Werewolves Within” gives me a smidgeon of renewed hope for the goodness of humanity, and a lot more renewed hope for the potential of game-to-screen adaptations.

“Werewolves Within” will be released in theaters on June 25 and on demand on July 2. Runtime: 97 minutes. Rated R.

Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.

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