Werewolves Within (2021)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2021-12-20 17:51

Written by: Mishna Wolff
Directed by: Josh Ruben
Starring: Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, and George Basil

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

A Whodunnit With Teeth

In recent years, the phrase “comfort horror” has come into prominence to describe the genre films fans return to for solace. It doesn’t exactly matter if said films involve severed heads, flayed flesh, and spilled guts—I’m sure there’s someone who even counts the likes of The Human Centipede among their “comfort movies.” What matters is the familiarity they bring: they’ve always been there and always will be, whenever we need them. I assume most of us have a roster of old staples on standby, ready to be put on in a moment’s notice if we need a nice boost. Rarer, though, is the movie that sets out to be “comfort horror.” Because it’s a paradox, right? By its very nature, horror is supposed to, well, horrify, which implies a degree of discomfort. Don’t tell that to Josh Ruben, though, who makes his intentions known with Werewolves Within right off the bat with a quote from Mister Rogers: “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.” You’d be forgiven for assuming this to be an ironic opening volley—I mean, how many horror movies insist on such wholesomeness? Usually, wholesomeness gets chewed up and spit out, right alongside innocence and goodwill. Not here, though: Werewolves Within is a perfectly nice, charming movie where a monster also happens to rip people apart.

The clever conceit—borrowed from the videogame that Ruben and screenwriter Mishna Wolff have adapted—has the werewolf hiding in plain sight in the town of Beaverfield. New forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) is new to this little slice of Americana, where everyone else is quite familiar with each other—which doesn’t mean they all exactly like each other. Small towns are like that, and mail carrier Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub) knows all of the dirt and gossip, making her a perfect de facto tour guide for Finn. Just one stroll through the town reveals that something toxic lurks beneath the lily white snow: petty feuds, long-standing grudges, and pent-up resentments regarding the construction of an oil pipeline. When dead bodies begin to turn up, it’s no surprise. What is surprising, however, is that all signs point towards the culprit being a werewolf.

Deftly mixing the playfulness of Clue and The Beast Must Die, Werewolves Within is, fittingly, a hoot and a howl. It’s a good-natured comedy that finds Ruben assembling a cast of utter charmers and trusting them to bounce their personalities off of each other. Richardson and Vayntrub are sturdy anchors, their back-and-forth patter echoing the stuff of vintage screwball comedies as each member of the supporting cast is given ample opportunity to steal a scene or two. These are all talented, funny individuals who develop distinctive shticks as the film progresses, and the way these shticks play off of each other is instrumental in building humor and suspense. Gathering these personalities together operates on Hitchcocks’ “bomb under the table” principle: it’s just that the tension creates just as many laughs as it does shocks.

There are more laughs, if we’re being honest. Werewolves Within is primarily a comedy, and a sharply realized one at that. While Ruben trusts his cast to handle Wolff’s witty dialogue, he exerts a firm grip on the proceedings. Unlike a lot of modern American comedies, this isn’t a shaggy dog affair with uninspired lensing and a loose style that encourages its performers to riff and improv; instead, Ruben creates humor through clever camera moves and sharp editing, giving the film a breezy energy. Werewolves Within remains light on its feet as it dishes out a steady stream of chuckle-worthy laughs that are often punctuated by uproarious payoffs, especially when the script starts to show some teeth. The filmmaking is remarkably limber: not only are the laughs tiptoeing around some dark story developments, but they’re also threaded through some unrepentant social commentary.

Where a lesser filmmaker might trip over such ambitions, Ruben makes some insightful—if not obvious—observations about this particularly divisive moment in time. Subtlety isn’t exactly a priority here, not when the script evokes contemporary phrases and discourse to twist this premise into a microcosm of current American politics. The way the characters’ distrust cuts across ideological and social lines is impossible to miss. Likewise, watching a group of bickering Americans struggle to unite against a common threat is all too familiar, and Werewolves Within is yet another movie that’s taken on added resonance in the era of COVID. Ruben reveals what we’ve all had to reckon with during the past two years: we, as a culture, are not particularly prepared to face a crisis that requires cooperation and empathy. In this case, at least, we can laugh about it: Werewolves Within might have a lot on its mind in this respect, but Ruben delivers his social critique with a quirky joviality. Even at its most cynical—and there’s a stretch where a handful of characters are offed with reckless abandon—it never feels too mean-spirited.

Which is not to say Werewolves Within doesn’t have any bite to it. On the contrary, it’s a genuinely effective horror movie, full of foreboding, shadowy landscapes that augment the tension, not to mention a fair amount of grisliness in the way of mutilated bodies and rotting corpses. Ruben paces the film like a classic monster movie, too, dedicating an ample amount of time to coiling the tension around the mystery (at one point, the characters start to suspect maybe there isn’t a werewolf after all) before unleashing the horrors during a rambunctious climax. Gore hounds might balk at the relative lack of on-screen mayhem, but somehow, it feels right that this isn’t unrepentant splatstick because the movie is simply too sweet for that. Delighting in sending these (mostly) good-humored characters through a blood-soaked meat-grinder would feel mean-spirited and would strike the wrong note given how otherwise light-hearted Werewolves Within is.

Because if there’s one thing Werewolves Within insists on, it’s being nice. That opening quote from Mister Rogers isn’t a gag, nor is it a pretense: it’s the film’s mantra. Finn is at the heart of this: not only has he been professionally exiled to this new, undesirable outpost, but his long-time girlfriend has broken up with him literally because he’s too nice. Throughout this lycanthropic ordeal, Finn’s easy-going demeanor wavers to the point where these are the true stakes of Werewolves Within: one man’s cheery disposition and a repudiation of toxic, alpha male masculinity. Despite the title’s pun, the film ultimately declares that it’s “fucking okay to be nice”—we don’t always have to embrace our inner, lone wolves. What’s more, we’ll have to band together—sometimes with people we don’t trust (in this case, Glenn Fleshler’s gruff survivalist provides the ying to Finn’s yang)—if we’re going to survive. It’s a refreshing outlooks, particularly within the confines of a genre that so often goes in the opposite, much bleaker direction.

Again, I know that’s an odd thing to say about the horror genre—a bleak direction is supposed to be the final destination here. And yet, Werewolves Within is a reminder that horror doesn’t always have to subject its audience to outright misery—it can (and should often) be fun too. If his first two films are any indication, Ruben will be a master of this niche if he chooses to be so: both this and Scare Me are masterclasses in weaving a wry playfulness through the horror genre. What’s more, it’s a distinct, clever type of humor that pokes fun at the genre without poking holes in it. Werewolves Within takes a well-worn premise—one that inspired one of the most claustrophobic, paranoiac films of all-time in John Carpenter’s The Thing—and simply has fun with it. In doing so, Ruben easily avoids any sophomore slump and further establishes himself as one of the most exciting new voices in horror. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and give him his own spot on my shelf in my personal movie collection. I have a feeling I’ll especially be watching Werewolves Within a lot in the years to come: it might be a frigid, snowbound whodunnit, but it has the charming coziness of a warm blanket.

Werewolves Within is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from RLJ Entertainment.

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