Horror movies typically don’t open with quotes from legendary nice guy Mr. Rogers. That is, unless the film in question found the beloved children’s TV star going on a murderous rampage after spending his entire career tamping all that anger down and finally letting it loose… or something. Werewolves Within, the sophomore feature from Josh Ruben (Shudder’s well-received Scare Me), is not that story. But it’s just as wild and crazy, the initially confusing choice of quotation setting the stage eloquently for the gleeful madness to come.
As Ruben’s title advises, this is a werewolf movie. There’s a vicious attack early on that, although nothing is actually shown onscreen, chills the blood just as keenly as the snow-covered landscape in which the hero, plucky forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson), finds himself on assignment. This out-of-the-way locale is Beaverfield, a small town filled to a bursting point with eccentrics played by many popular performers. Look, there’s American Horror Story’s Cheyenne Jackson and What We Do in the Shadows’ Harvey Guillén as a bougie gay couple! And over yonder, it’s Michael Chernus (Orange Is the New Black) as a lecherous husband. Who’s running the only hotel in town? Why, it’s Stranger Things’ Catherine Curtin, of course.
Ruben’s assembled cast is impressive, a little too impressive in fact, almost as though the filmmakers couldn’t possibly pick between all these terrific actors so they just opted to put them all in the movie instead. As a result, a character such as George Basil’s stoner doesn’t make much of an impression beyond “low-rent Jay,” with his long-suffering wife filling in as a talkative version of Kevin Smith’s iconic stoner Silent Bob. The brilliant Wayne Duvall enters the story as a bloodthirsty gas tycoon and never once strays from that position. Sadly, this is an issue across the board. There are simply too many people onscreen to properly get a read on anybody besides Finn and mail-person Cecily (a spirited, adorable Milana Vayntrub). Thankfully, the mismatched duo is more than up to the challenge of shouldering the burden.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Prano Bailey-Bond’s ‘Censor’
Werewolves Within introduces Finn right in the middle of giving himself a pep talk about being more assertive, on the drive over to Beaverville. Clearly still pining for his ex, Finn sparks instantly with Cecily, who’s the only (extremely liberal) person in this lily-white town not confused by the newcomer’s presence — one character dumbly asks “Do you celebrate Kwanza? Do you have a Kwanza tree?” Demonstrably the only Black person in a 10-mile radius, Finn takes to his new job role somewhat apprehensively at first but is encouraged by Cecily to toughen up, which is handy considering that there’s a bloodthirsty lycanthrope on the loose. After holing up in the local lodge, the group realizes one of them must be the killer in question, but who could it be?
Ruben’s previous effort, Scare Me, went rapidly downhill after stranding its two wholly unlikable protagonists in a cabin and forcing the audience to watch them desperately riff off each other for what truly felt like an entire weekend. For one horrifying moment in Werewolves Within, it seems like Ruben is about to make the same mistake again as everybody settles into the hotel and commences yelling at each other. The director works from a clever and frequently funny script by newcomer Mishna Wolff, rather than adapting his own work, and it makes all the difference. Werewolves Within also isn’t actually a single-location story, though it’s somewhat self-contained. The scope is widened to take in the entire town, which allows for several near misses and deadly scrapes as the various denizens dart for cover.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Damian Mc Carthy’s ‘Caveat’
The wintry setting helps anchor the film’s loopier moments. Making blankets of crisp, clean snow look bad is nigh-on impossible, and the white stuff generally covers a whole wealth of errors too, but Werewolves Within is a lovely-looking film regardless, which also feels cold without being oppressive, thanks to Matt Wise’s encapsulating cinematography. The bundled-up styling further contributes to the cozy, fireside mood, especially Cecily’s sweet postal worker getup. Although Anna Drubich’s omnipresent score is overused and quickly begins to grate, suggesting Ruben isn’t confident enough to simply let a scene play out without hammering home how goofy it’s supposed to be, there’s a 90s pop needle-drop that’s absolute perfection. All these little touches contribute to the warm feeling of familiarity that’s ruthlessly shattered when characters start being picked off one by one.
Werewolves Within is loosely based on the video game of the same name, a project from the beleaguered studio Ubisoft, who also had a hand in the film’s production. Thankfully, the only elements that seem to have been carried over are the concept and the body count, which is impressively high and almost justifies the overstuffed cast. The werewolf’s transformation is fairly decent, though it understandably also highlights the project’s meager budget. Horror-comedy is a notoriously tough sub-genre to pull off, and Werewolves Within definitely leans harder on the funny stuff. There are scarce scares and little tension, while the identity of the killer will be obvious to anybody paying attention. Still, with a film like this, who’s at fault isn’t really the point.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Chris Baugh’s ‘Boys from County Hell’
Richardson and Vayntrub both do terrific work as the unlikely duo tasked with saving the day. They share a fizzy, tentative chemistry that almost makes one wish that Werewolves Within focused entirely on their unlikely pursuit of justice rather than wasting time with the peripheral characters standing around endlessly playing “J’Accuse!” with each other. Richardson has long been relegated to shining in the background, so it’s wonderful that he’s finally front and center, showing off what he can do. Finn is truly someone to root for too, while elsewhere, it’s comforting to see What We Do in the Shadows’ dutiful house cleaner, Guillermo, finally getting some proper action.
Werewolves Within is loaded with clever lines, it’s incredibly quotable and is likely to become a cult fave with horror fans as a result. However, one particular line, delivered by Guillén’s Joachim about the situation resembling a bad dinner theater production from which he can’t escape, hits slightly too close to the bone because there are moments when Ruben’s sophomore effort, like his debut, feels inescapably stagey. Werewolves Within even ventures into Clue territory, though it’s not nearly as camp. This is all to say that the film is goofy, hokey and certainly good fun but doesn’t necessarily hang together plot-wise even though its heart is clearly in the right place. Ruben boxes himself in.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Anthony Scott Burns’ ‘Come True’
Still, Werewolves Within has a puckish charm that’s difficult to resist. In spite of everything working against it, Ruben’s movie is eminently watchable thanks in large part to the brilliant cast, led confidently by Richardson. In the end, Werewolves Within goes down easy like one of Jeanine’s famous sandwiches — just don’t think too hard about the ingredients.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.