Werewolves Within starts with a huge promise. Over ominous, foreboding music, a quote about good neighbors slowly unfolds on screen in a roughly-serifed font that suggests old secrets and dark shadows. As the music reaches a crescendo, we find that the quote is attributed to…Mr. Rogers. It’s not the most revolutionary juxtaposition, but it’s executed with audacity and sass. Alas, it’s a threshold the rest of the film doesn’t always rise to but it tries so, so hard you guys.
Forest Ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) has just arrived in the small Vermont town of Beaverfield, where tensions are running high. A developer wants to put in a pipeline, which has divided the residents against each other into pro- and anti-pipeline camps. When a freak snowstorm cuts out power to the town, the residents (all 11 of them) are forced to take shelter in the town’s inn. It soon turns out the something (or rather, some THING) is stalking the populace, and it’s one of the people currently locked in the lodge with everyone else.
Werewolves Within shares its basic premise with the video game of the same name but not much else: someone in the group is secretly a werewolf, and you have to figure out who before everyone else gets eaten. While the original is set in a medieval town and assigns specific roles to players in a Mafia-style deduction game, the movie is set in an exceedingly small and inordinately colorful town in New England and assigns the characters one or two traits that it endlessly riffs on for 90 minutes. (97 minutes if you count the credits.)
Not that it’s all bad, mind you. There’s a lot of great humor, ranging from subtle to absurd, that comes from those characters thanks to the dedicated performances of each of the cast. Besides the two main characters — Finn and local mail carrier Cecily (played by Milana Vayntrub) — each of the cast has an improv air about them in the sense that the actors were given a very rough outline of who they were playing and told to vamp for their lives. In that sense, it does actually play off of a kind of party game energy; none of the characters really have an arc, and we know just enough about them to make the narrative go forward.
There really isn’t a bad performance in the entire film or an odd casting decision here. The cast never drops below a certain level of quality. Richardson and Vayntrub especially make for a good pair of protagonists, with Richardson playing Finn as kind of a “golly gosh” square desperately trying to “man up” and Vayntrub playing Cecily as too cool for school (and especially for Beaverfield). Of special note is Michaela Watkins as the right-wing arts & crafts enthusiast Trisha, who quickly descends into a humorous, theatrical madness when her dog is attacked in the first act. She’s especially antagonistic to the town’s gay couple, played with just the right amount of camp and endearing queeniness by Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén. A gay couple played by actual gay actors? It’s a Christmas in July miracle!
What really prevents the film from taking off is its script, however. Writer Mishna Wolff has a great ear for dialogue and how her characters interact, but she has less of a grasp on story or keeping her ideas consistent and vital. The first aspect can be given a slight pass as the story is intentionally light here, and we’re focused mainly on the premise’s big question of who the werewolf is. But Wolff (ha!) never quite seems sure how she wants to paint with that, and she sometimes loses the plot. When the tensions between the residents reach a boiling point, the werewolf itself even threatens to become a metaphor. These people don’t need an apex predator to take them out when they seem all too ready to turn on each other, after all.
Wolff should be given credit for keeping the werewolf’s identity well-hidden over the course of the film, though. She drops just enough hints for each character to make them a suspect, even if some are a bit too obvious to be anything more than a red herring. And when the creature is revealed, it actually makes sense when you look back at what came before. In fact, Wolff uses that moment to make some cutting meta-commentary on the film itself, which was much appreciated.
The film also doesn’t go as far as it should. This really is a premise ripe for crossing the line repeatedly, but for an R-rated horror/comedy, it’s incredibly mild. It may be one of the softest R’s I’ve seen in a while. (Ready Or Not this ain’t.) Much like Ranger Finn’s penchant for censoring his own swear words, the film sometimes seems afraid to really go for broke. Honestly, the film would probably be a PG-13 if it weren’t for the amount of f-bombs in the dialogue. It’s disappointing to see the film get so hesitant; director Josh Ruben does a great job of framing the story, but aside from one or two moments in the climax, he rarely gets too visceral or outrageous.
The film honestly lives and dies by its quirk factor, which is the one thing it has in abundance. This is a film where the climactic battle is scored to Ace of Base’s “The Sign”, which had been planted in the first act like it was Chekov’s Europop. The characters definitely have their own individual quirks, which in turn collide with the quirks of the premise and setting. Even when the narrative drags, that energy quietly pulses in the background, keeping things pleasantly sustained.
“Quiet” and “pleasant” probably aren’t the best buzzwords to hang a film of this nature on, but there you go. But thanks to the cast, it’s rarely dull and almost always at least a little bit humorous. Like the games it’s based off of, it’s not a bad way to spend the night, and it doesn’t require a huge amount of personal investment. Silver bullets are totally optional; you do you, boo.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
Werewolves Within can be streamed through Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and Vudu.