Josh Ruben directs a horror comedy that’s both social satire and a clever whodunit.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that all that stuff about the importance of caring for your neighbors, and looking past differences in order to create a better world? Horseshit. Absolute nonsense. The phrase “I got mine, to hell with everyone else” should be emblazoned on the American flag. Not even a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus could bring us together – if anything, it divided us further, splitting the country right down the middle between “I’d like to not spread this virus to other people” and “Hey, pal, other people aren’t my fuckin’ problem.” As we slowly recover from said potentially fatal virus, it may not seem time yet to laugh at such a thing, and yet, by gosh, director Josh Ruben makes it possible in Werewolves Within, a riotously funny horror-comedy that pokes fun at neighbors who are unable to force themselves to get along even in the most dire of circumstances.
Written by Mishna Wolff (who in turn loosely based it on the video game of the same name), Werewolves Within stars Sam Richardson as Finn, the brand new ranger in the tiny, isolated town of Beaverfield. Due mostly to Richardson’s delightful performance, Finn immediately enters the pantheon of great horror movie characters, a true audience surrogate who reacts to what happens with perplexity more than anything else. For Finn, being nice is not just a choice, it’s a way of life for him. He simply doesn’t know any other way to be, even if it means being somewhat of a pushover for virtually everyone he meets.
Though Finn hits it off right away with the town’s sole mailperson Cecily (a fantastic Milana Vayntrub), the other residents of Beaverfield test his ability to remain nice. Among its denizens are Pete and Trisha Anderton (Michael Chernus and Michaela Watkins), who blame the minor bit of vandalism on their front lawn on “Antifa” and “Brooklyn hipsters.” Not far from them are wealthy yoga studio owners Devon and Joachim Wolfson (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén), who choose big city snobbery over politeness. Finally, there’s white trash lovebirds Marcus and Gwen (George Basil and Sarah Burns), whose raucous “they’re either fighting or fucking” relationship is looked down on by everyone. The whole town is bitterly divided over the impending construction of a gas pipeline, overseen by the sinister Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), who’s all too aware of the conflict his project is causing, and seems to be enjoying it.
Finn isn’t even on the job a full day before a mystery is afoot involving a missing (and presumably eaten) dog, and the discovery of a mangled human corpse. Visiting ecologist Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), just before mysteriously committing “suicide,” determines that the culprit is a werewolf, one which also destroys all the generators in town. Without power, and with a vicious snowstorm on the way, Finn and the others find themselves holed up in a rooming house together, where their petty differences may ultimately prove more dangerous than the monster on the loose.
Now, before you get to thinking that this all ends up being some boring metaphor letdown, there really is a werewolf in Werewolves Within. You don’t really see it until the end of the movie, but there is one, and the narrowing down of who it could be makes for a well-crafted suspense thriller. The “twist” here is the bleakly funny (and all too plausible) reveal that most of the characters, save for Finn and Cecily, would rather put their own lives at risk than tolerate and cooperate with those who are different from them. We know this to be true, because it’s borne itself out in real life, particularly in the past year. Finn’s bafflement when everyone opts to return to their homes and try to protect themselves alone from the werewolf instead of working together is similar to the bafflement one felt at people who refused to wear masks because “personal freedom” was more important than the safety of others. That Ruben and Wolff are able to successfully put a humorous spin on it is really a small miracle.
It helps that, while some of the characters are a bit too broad at times (one hopes we can one day give gay men more of a personality than “bitchy”), Ruben and Wolff know how far to take them. No one uses the phrase “fake news” at any point, nor is anyone ever seen wearing a familiar red hat. They give the audience credit for understanding what this is supposed to be evocative of, without hitting them over the head with it. Though it loses its way a bit in the final third, Werewolves Within retains sight of its core message: without community, we’re doomed.
It’s already been mentioned, but it’s worth saying again: none of this would work as effectively without Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub at the center of it. While the supporting characters mostly just argue with each other, often at the top of their voices, Richardson’s warmth and likability, and Vayntrub’s quirkiness keep everything grounded. Their chemistry is palpable, and if the entire movie was just them getting to know each other in an empty bar (one of the highlights of the film), that would have been perfectly fine. Character development often comes a distant third (if that) in horror, and here, Wolff’s screenplay and Richardson’s performance help to create a truly memorable hero in Finn. He’s absolutely right: why argue when you can just be nice? You’re going to get eaten either way.
Werewolves Within is now playing in limited theatrical release and will be available on VOD starting July 2nd.