by Jordan King
Following reasonably hot on the heels of Jim Cummings’ 2020 Fargo-esque horror-comedy The Wolf of Snow Hollow, a murder mystery caper that saw a purported werewolf on the loose in a small mountain town, Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within – a Ubisoft Studios production spun-off from the same titled VR game – offers audiences another helping of lycanthropic laughs and bloodletting. Sitting pretty at present as Rotten Tomatoes’ highest rated video game adaptation, it is safe to say that Ruben and screenwriter Mishna Wolff’s howl-dunnit is a little bit of a minor gem amidst 2021’s backed up catalogue of new releases.
Sam Richardson stars as Finn Wheeler, a mild-mannered Forest Ranger who is going through a break-up that he’s too meek to realise is a break-up and whose hero and guiding light is none other than everyone’s favourite neighbour, Fred Rogers. Finn has been placed on assignment in the small hamlet of Beaverfield, a chilly town – shot intimately and atmospherically by DP Matthew Wise – whose few residents are colder yet, none given over to the more kindly inclinations of the new ranger on the beat.
With political and social divisions rife among the town’s microcosm of present-day America, the proposal of a new pipeline cutting straight through Beaverfield by Big Suit businessman Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall) has tensions at an all-time high. Upon Finn’s arrival in town, he befriends eccentric but sweet postie Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), who gives him the skinny on the residents’ quirks and dramas, teeing up the suspects of the whodunnit that’s to come with Edgar Wright reminiscent rapidity. With the likes of a fantastically overacting Michaela Watkins and What We Do in the Shadows’ Harvey Guillén amongst the film’s small but totally game ensemble, we’re given a real Clue-like cast of caricaturish characters to love, loathe, and cast our suspicious eyes over.
When a dead dog and a freshly discovered body brings Beaverfield’s populace all under the roof of the town’s lone inn, whispers of a werewolf and a slowly but steadily increasing bodycount allow Ruben and Wolff to really ratchet up the tension as they simultaneously tickle viewers’ funny bones.
Marking the second film in as many months to utilise poor town planning as a plot device to unleash resident evil – do check out County Boys From Hell on August 6th for an Irish folklore steeped vampire flick with its own blackly comic bite – Werewolves Within is more than comfortable playing up to its myriad stylistic and narrative influences, troping it up without selling out. There’s shades of Clue and Knives Out in the larger-than-life ensemble whodunnit set-up, whilst werewolf classics of yore such as The Beast Must Die and An American Werewolf in London indelibly have their claws in the concept being run with here. There’s also a clear reverence for the genre-reflexivity at play in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, a stylistic influence that isn’t just apparent in the earlier mentioned zippiness of the plot’s movement and the film’s editing, but that goes deeper than that in the way reaction shots are played for subversive laughs and needle-drops are deployed with precision – Savage Garden’s Truly Madly Deeply gets a run-out that sets up the tone of the film and the dynamic of Finn and Cecily’s relationship perfectly. Beneath those influences though, and beneath the well-trodden small town cop/paranoid residents/urbanisation anxiety narrative strands, there’s a lot of invention to be found.
Werewolves Within uses the familiarity of its generic and stylistic reference points to lull viewers into a false sense of security. As the plot unspools and revelations come thick and fast, assumptions we are invited to make based on our own awareness of the tropes of the whodunnit and werewolf horrors are turned on a knife’s edge to deliver GOTCHA moments galore. And not only that, the cast’s wonderfully zany energy and caustic on-screen chemistry creates the kind of heightened reality that makes it faithful to its video-game roots whilst also freeing Ruben and Wolff up to deliver some big, mushy, heart-on-sleeve moralising messages about the value of human decency and goodness. Not many werewolf horror comedies can pull off a Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood motif at all, let alone in such a way as to make the link an intrinsic part of the narrative and its character development – but here we are, and yes Werewolves Within does.
Props also need to be given to Werewolves Within’s composer Anna Drubich, whose haunting, classically chilling score stabs through the comic elements of Ruben’s film and the bubblegum comfort of the many pop-heavy needle-drops to really emphasise the equal weighting of the horror and the comedy in the horror-comedy, a balance which so often has been found lacking in the sub-genre in recent years. The infrequent visceral horror is made all the more terrifying when it does come through mainly thanks to Drubich’s Carpenterian, atmospheric work here.
Werewolves Within doesn’t reinvent the wheel of the horror-comedy – and nor does it ever claim to be trying to. Thanks to a uniformly solid ensemble cast, a real star turn from the incredibly charismatic Sam Richardson, and a refreshing commitment to chilling and thrilling in equal measure, what could have been a bit of a howler is instead a fur-st class bit of fun.
Werewolves Within is available on Shudder now!