“It makes you want to give up and revisit its more compelling forebears.”
Werewolves Within is technically a video game movie, but people worried by it awkwardly straddling mediums can take some comfort from it not feeling like something that should really be playable. It’s an adaptation of a party game, meaning it doesn’t have much story to draw from — but the quickest point of comparison would be to call it Knives Out (2019) with werewolves. It’s a silly homage to whodunits with some werewolf action thrown in (it chucks in some of the politics and self-aware nonsense of Rian Johnson’s film too). The concept is compelling for anyone interested in the mashing together of such disparate genres as supernatural fantasy and the parlour mystery. There is the foundation for a unique and memorable movie, but Josh Ruben doesn’t know how to give form to the possibilities.
The story has a typical but decent setup. Our hero is a kindly ranger named Finn (Sam Richardson), but he is unprepared for the bizarre nature of the town, Beaverville, that he’s just transferring to. It’s a place full of eccentric individuals, including a booze-swilling oil magnate, married right wingers who are at war with each other and the world at large, and an eco-scientist-cum-activist who’s seemingly hiding secrets. The only average person is a postal worker named Cecily (Milana Vayntrub). Beaverville is a divided community, as the development of a gas pipeline has given rise to an undercurrent of resentment. Amidst all this there are also suggestions of a werewolf in town, but as they don’t make themselves very visible on the screen; it hardly feels part of that supernatural tradition. People watching this expecting gore like Dog Soldiers (2002) or laughs like An American Werewolf in London (1981) will be sorely disappointed.
Tonally, the film at large fits within the genre of horror-comedy, and the production values are quite high considering its most recent major stablemate is 2011’s Zombieland. Early setup suggests the acting will be about the quality of a B movie, but this film immediately impresses with its carefully pitched performances. Richardson and Vayntrub have charming chemistry early on, and that positive beginning suggests the whole film might make for an immersive watch. It has a decent look too: the lighting is rarely overlit, the camera work is strategic, and editing us sometimes even snappy. There’s a competency that paves the way for brilliance.
But this brilliance seems further and further out of reach as the film progresses. The ensemble of characters seems like it might be an intriguingly motley crew, but the script ensures there isn’t anything interesting about the way they interact with each other. Decent actors are given poor dialogue that barely registers and often feels half-hearted, taking away the dynamic energy that should be at the centre of the story. The failure to create a compelling ensemble wouldn’t be so disappointing if the production values didn’t suggest that this should be a film in the big league of all the genres it inhabits.
For something that you’d hope to be a bold and distinctive work there isn’t much in the way of ideas either. Environmentalism plays a big part of the plot, but the clashing of political ideologies doesn’t seem to serve much purpose beyond creating a bit of drama. The most memorable message is a monologue about the value of being nice — but that doesn’t feel part of a coherent idea running through the story. Without any significant depth to stand in for the lacklustre humour the viewing experience is one that’s largely superficial, the audience’s attention maintained by passable filmmaking.
The premise of Werewolves Within is unique and could be well executed, but unfortunately the film has an identity crisis. It tries to throw in elements of the horror-comedy, whodunit, romance, and werewolf movie, but it rarely puts enough energy into any element for the story’s originality to shine. Ruben’s work is rarely successful as a homage to or evolution of what has come before; it makes you want to give up and revisit its more compelling forebears. It’s surprisingly watchable at points but will disappoint anyone who hopes it could reach the potential of its ludicrous concept. Unbelievably, a werewolf murder mystery can be boring.
Header image courtesy of IFC Films
Dir: Josh Ruben
Prod: Ubisoft Film & Television / Vanishing Angle
Cast: Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub
Release Date: 25th June 2021 (United States)
Available on: DVD, Streaming