Director Josh Ruben’s follow-up to his 2020 feature debut Scare Me, Werewolves Within is not what most have come to expect of a video game to movie adaptation. The film is loosely based on the multiplayer VR game of the same name which in turn was inspired by the popular parlour game Mafia (also known as Werewolf). Video game adaptations have gained a reputation in recent years thanks to the bevy of critical and commercial failures and just the phrase is enough to make some sceptical of the film. However, it would be hard to say, as many critics have been, that Werewolves Within bucks the trend of video game movies because so many of its references and inspirations are filmic. Sometimes it feels as if the only thing it’s taken from its video game source is the whodunnit aspect, and by injecting it with consistent humour and a cast of peculiar characters, it work in a similar way that board game adaptation Clue did in 1985.
So with a similar set up to the game, it supplants the medieval setting for a snowy Republican town in the rural United States populated by stereotypes played by comedic character actors. These include: the ‘white trash’ couple Gwen (Sarah Burns) and Marcus (George Basil), Karen (Michaela Watkins) and Pete (Michael Chernus) as the Republican couple screaming “Antifa!” and the liberal tech-millionaire couple Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) and Joaquim (Harvey Guillén), as well as environmentalist Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson) and survivalist Emerson (Glenn Fleshler). These contrasting and over-the-top characters are naturally at odds with each other but add in town-wide disagreements over a proposed gas pipeline from Mr. Parker (Wayne Duvall), and the film starts to feel political. Our guiding force is newly arrived forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) who drives into the town listening to self-help guides on how to be more masculine. Finn forms a natural alliance with mail carrier Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) and there is an instant spark, in moments that feel reminiscent of mid-2000s indie rom-coms. However, as corpses start to emerge and pets get mauled by mysterious creatures, a snowstorm confines the ragtag group of townspeople into the inn and the titular werewolf starts attacking.
The film’s pacing from the beginning is energetic, lively and almost hard to keep up with as Cecily shows Finn around to introduce him, and us, to all of the film’s characters that they end up trapped in the inn with. It falls into a rhythm of exaggerated and quick-paced comedy with Richardson playing the confused straight-man with his own comedic sensibility. The film feels obviously and inescapably reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, utilising his best horror-comedy techniques in the pacing, shots and editing that so perfectly creates a feeling of unease — light-hearted unease. There are great Wright-esque physical gags using actors placement and movement, like the creepy Dr Ellis appearing randomly in shot and although this style of editing and scoring, like moving from scene to scene with a loud whoosh and then a quick camera pan can start to feel repetitive, the entertaining dialogue pulls it through. Also reminiscent of Wright’s work is the film’s construction of the kooky supporting characters, made possible by the excellent cast that make the script — which does start to weaken in the middle — work for them. And the two leads, Richardson and Vayntrub, are incredible individually but also have an unmistakably great chemistry.
However, the script does feel slightly uneven overall and starts to weaken in the middle where the humour starts to falter slightly, or just gets repetitive. Mostly, the construction of jokes is fun and satisfying but may be divisive for audiences and feel like a miss for some. This could be where, like most video game adaptations, a comparison to the source material is its down-fall, however, the video game had the ability to be fast-paced and simple, yet the film has to contend with world-building and when the film eventually comes to fully focus its lens on the whodunnit, it feels rushed and the ending abrupt. However, when it does get to the point, the scenes of horror are inherently B-movie-esque in its refusal to show its monster until the end. It utilises the sounds of the werewolf and it’s actors’ reaction to the monster to great effect. Although it’s certainly more on the comedy side of the horror-comedy sphere, the moments of horror do successfully land and don’t feel too far removed from the tone of the film.
To simply describe Werewolves Within; it’s like Hot Fuzz meets Knives Out meets Fargo. It is most definitely derivative but it also makes the best of that position, with its unique source material and inspirations and a charismatic cast, it is definitely effective in its horror-comedy aims. Although the political metaphors and intimations can feel obvious and a bit stale, the film raising questions about and commenting on sexual harassment, gun rights, corporate greed and the environment, alongside last years werewolf film The Wolf of Snow Hollow, suggests that werewolves might just be the new vampire in post-Trump America.
Werewolves Within is available in US cinemas and on VOD now
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.