With the release of his feature film debut Scare Me last year, director Josh Ruben put himself on the horror-comedy map with his tale about horror writers telling scary stories. With Werewolves Within, Ruben further proves his skills as a director who knows how to walk that delicate line between horror and comedy, deftly moving between genres to create something that isn’t just scary, but genuinely hilarious. The cherry on top? This is a videogame adaptation.
Werewolves Within is based on the Ubisoft game of the same name where players try to determine who is the werewolf; Mafia but with shapeshifting lycanthropes. Unlike the game, which takes place in a medieval town, Ruben’s film instead takes place in the present day in the small town of Beaverfield. Forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) moves to Beaverfield on assignment after a gas pipeline has been proposed to run through the town. But as the snow starts to fall and the sun sets behind the trees, something big and hairy begins hunting the townsfolk. Trapped in the local bed and breakfast, it’s up to Finn and postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) to try to find out who is picking people off one by one. But as red herrings fly across the screen like a dolphin show at the local aquarium, it feels almost impossible. Just when you think you’ve guessed the killer, something completely uproots your theories.
It manages to be an amazing videogame adaptation because writer Mishna Wolff doesn’t try to make something faithful to the game’s contents, but rather takes inspiration from them—not unlike Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil films. Wolff takes the core idea (a hidden werewolf in a small town where everyone knows each other), and places it in an even more outlandish and contemporary context to pack an even funnier punch.
In bringing the film to the present rather than keeping it in the past, Wolff is able to write painfully relevant jokes about politics and stereotypes about conservatives versus liberals in small-town America. Comedy here comes primarily through this examination of stereotypical small town characters that also plays into a larger political message about the destruction of small town America, all packed into Wolff’s tight script. Within the impending changes of Beaverfield, the conservatives with their aggressive yard signs and very loud opinions shout and brandish weapons in the name of “freedom” and “protecting their own.” Liberal transplants, like the couple played by Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén, bring a much more privileged perspective, not thinking of the locals but about their quiet extended vacation being ruined by construction. Environmental destruction doesn’t take the forefront; instead each bizarre resident centers the problems on themselves, which only leads to their untimely (and bloody) deaths at the hands of something lurking in the shadows.
While the jokes never stop flowing in Werewolves Within, Ruben and Wolff never lose sight of the film’s horrific aspects through plenty of gore, tense scares and one hell of a climax. The remaining members of Beaverfield are jammed into the town’s bed and breakfast, believing there’s safety in numbers, especially since none of them seem to be the murderer. However, in a series of events akin to John Carpenter’s masterpiece The Thing, their one place of respite becomes a terrifying blood-filled hellhole as people are dragged from their beds and hands are ripped from bodies. Paranoia just keeps building and building which, paired with a lot of loaded guns, is a very dangerous situation even without a werewolf involved.
The delightfully over-the-top performances by a cast of talented comic character actors bring the comedy and horror to life as they each absolutely chew up the scenery to add to the bizarre atmosphere where everyone is just a little bit too much, whether that be overly friendly or needlessly aggressive; everyone’s emotions are turned up to 11, which makes Beaverfield feel like a town lying just outside the periphery of typical human existence. Michaela Watkins, known for countless comedic roles in shows such as Transparent, Big Mouth and Search Party, plays the town Karen who struts around town with her fluffy dog, shouting her opinions in people’s faces with an exaggerated Midwest accent that feels like nails on a chalkboard; she is the embodiment of the nosy neighbor who is in everyone’s business no matter how hard you try to avoid her. We all know someone like her, which makes her character all the more hilarious and anxiety-inducing. Paired with Michael Chernus as her bumbling husband, they are a match made in hell that is everyone’s worst neighbor nightmare. Richardson leads the pack as a neurotic forest ranger who is just doing his best, but not always succeeding due to his crippling anxiety. His performance makes Finn’s character arc all the more satisfying as we watch him evolve from just a dude in a uniform into an unexpected group leader. Finn may not be the typical horror hero, but Richardson makes me want more protagonists like him; weird, anxious and brave.
Among this eclectic cast, the stunning Vayntrub completely steals the show as the charming and quirky Cecily. She is very matter-of-fact and says things like, “Oh, that man will shoot you if you walk onto his property,” as if she is talking about the weather. Utterly unfazed by the antics of Beaverfield, she’s an amused observer—essentially a professional people-watcher, as she gets to know every town resident when she delivers their mail. She is Finn’s Virgil, leading him through the snow-covered streets and explaining the town’s dynamics as if she is narrating a nature documentary. Her relaxed demeanor is placed in stark contrast with Finn’s own neurotic behavior, making them a hilarious pair who are just trying to navigate life in a small town. Vayntrub and Richardson are a perfect duo who feed off of each other’s energy, whether they are fighting side by side or trying to reason with townsfolk.
On top of that, Cecily immediately flirts with Finn—establishing her, at first blush, as the manic pixie dream girl who tells funny jokes, throws an axe, drinks beer and gives off the vibe of just being one of the guys. But as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover, because Cecily is more than a romantic interest for Finn. Vayntrub makes Cecily incredibly lovable with her comedic timing and, as the film progresses, only further proves her chops as a performer. Another thing that makes Werewolves Within so incredible is that Wolff and Ruben put a woman and a Black man at the center of the narrative, but don’t conform to horror expectations of tokenization or that sexist shove of female characters to the side. Yes, Finn and Cecily initially conform to stereotypes of the new millennials in town, but that has nothing to do with their race or gender identities. Werewolves Within is yet another refreshing example that stories don’t have to be centered on white male protagonists to be successful, funny or scary.
This film full of over-the-top characters, ridiculous hijinks and more red herrings than you can keep track of is a great entry in the woefully small werewolf subgenre. Riding on the heels of Jim Cummings’ The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Amelia Moses’ Bloodthirsty, Ruben’s Werewolves Within offers another contemporary spin on the lycanthrope that will both disgust the audience and make them howl with laughter. On top of that, it’s a top-notch entry on the list of cinematic videogame adaptations that proves such a feat is possible if you don’t take the assignment too seriously. Werewolves Within is a beautiful marriage of mystery and horror that always keeps the viewer on their toes; each twist perfectly spaced from the others to create a false sense of security just for a moment. By destabilizing the viewer to the point where we are never truly comfortable or aware of what is really going on, the film aims to dupe even the most discerning mystery fans who can see the film’s ending from a mile away. Werewolves Within is one of the best horror movies of 2021 so far and marks a bright future for Ruben, Wolff and Vayntrub.
Director: Josh Ruben
Writers: Mishna Wolff
Stars: Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, George Basil, Sarah Burns, Michael Chernus, Catherine Curtin, Wayne Duvall, Harvey Guillén
Release Date: June 25, 2021
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.