It is something of an understatement to say that game to film adaptations have a poor reputation. It’s a reputation well earned. From eye-wateringly terrible creations like Uwe Boll‘s House of The Dead to the nothingy blandness of Max Payne (2008) or Hitman (2007), these films always come off like pale and cynical imitations of Hollywood blockbusters. They fail to either capture the fun of their source material or offer an interesting story in their own right. Werewolves Within is an interesting proposition that has the potential to buck that trend.
On one hand, it’s a werewolf movie and a horror comedy, which are both sub-genres with more than their fair share of stinkers. On the other hand, it’s a film helmed by Josh Ruben, whose 2020 offering Scare Me was one of our top picks of last year. Genuinely funny, it’s an ingenious deconstructed horror anthology with an underlying message about fragile masculinity. Werewolves Within isn’t an adaptation of a flashy action game. It actually has its genesis in a strategic card game, less concerned with storytelling and visuals and more with creating an atmosphere of mistrust, paranoia and cunning deception.
Perhaps it’s this root in analogue gaming that makes Werewolves Within feel so close to 1985’s Clue. Like the manor house in Clue, the town of Beaverfield is populated by a gaggle of eccentric oddballs, each with their own closely guarded secrets. Tensions are already high in Beaverfield when Park Ranger ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) arrives. In a whistle-stop tour, postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) fills him in on the local gossip. Much of this revolves around a proposed oil pipeline that could decimate the local wildlife but make many of the residents filthy rich. The townsfolk are forced to take refuge together when a snowstorm arrives and a monster with razor-sharp claws guts all of the power generators in town. However, there is no safety in numbers in Beaverfield, and the scared inhabitants begin to suspect that the monster may be among them.
With a film whose premise rests entirely on the dynamic between its characters, it’s very important that the performances be on point. Thankfully, talented cast members are something that Werewolves Within has in spades. A rabidly conservative couple (Michaela Watkins and Michael Chernus) face off against a wealthy metropolitan pair who run a yoga studio (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén). A local guest-house is run by the homely Jeanine (Catherine Curtin), who may know more about her husband’s disappearance than she lets on. Perhaps most disarming is the central performance by Sam Richardson, an enthusiastic new recruit to the parks service, whose charming belief in the importance of neighborliness comes hand in hand with a total inability to assert himself.
Given the film’s tight schedule and budget (the production could not even afford trailers to promote the movie), it’s also an impressively slick-looking beast. While the snow-covered exteriors are beautiful, the interiors are all cozy, inviting and highly textural. They provide a warmth that adds to the general tone that this is a fireside mystery rather than a visceral horror production. Some fast editing feels like a nod to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of which are clear influences here.
With a slightly disappointing transformation sequence and a few bloodless horror scenes, Werewolves Within is definitely aiming at its audience’s hearts and minds, rather than their guts. The script by Ruben and Mishna Wolff is a well balanced affair, maintaining tension and carefully implying that any townsperson could be the monster. Meanwhile, it peppers in a good few jokes and the odd allusion to politics and current events. While not all of these land, the general charm of the project is enough to carry the day. As a result, viewers will likely forgive the somewhat toothless ending, which feels like a bit of an anticlimax.
With a pleasant underlying message about the importance of being a good neighbour despite your differences (the film opens on a Mr. Rogers quote in a heavy gothic font, which is entirely appropriate), Werewolves Within is an impressive low-budget mystery with a smart script, some great comic performances and a lot of heart.