Tribeca 2021 Review: WEREWOLVES WITHIN, Horror-Comedy Done Gorily Right
“Good fences make good neighbors,” a long-dead, if still wise, American poet, Robert Frost, once said in probably his best-known, most popular poem, "Mending Walls." It’s a lesson only a few denizens of the fictional town of Beaverfield, Vermont in second-time director Josh Ruben (Scare Me) and first-time screenwriter Mishna Wolff’s consistently sharp-toothed adaptation of Ubisoft's 2016 VR videogame, Werewolves Within, have taken to heart.
With the possible exception of a heavily bearded, fur-wearing survivalist who lives alone on the outskirts of town, fences mean next to nothing to the residents of Beaverfield. Good neighborliness ends where their bank accounts begin, especially where a new, potentially lucrative, gas pipeline is concerned, but that pipeline needs the small town’s unanimous approval and without that unanimous approval, the pipeline will remain a pipe dream.
That’s all backdrop — and background, albeit important background — to the suspicious deaths by mauling that have afflicted the Beaverfield area over the last several months. No one, of course, pays those deaths or the possibility of a vicious, wild animal rampaging through the area much attention or concern, secure in the knowledge that their safety is guaranteed as long as they take the usual precautions and avoid going out at night unless absolutely necessary.
That leaves a newcomer, Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson), a newly arrived forest ranger, in the middle of an ideological and economic conflict that might erupt into violence, (were)wolf or no (were)wolf. His goodnatured, genial nature makes him, however, the perfect mediator for the town’s ongoing conflicts (regardless of whether he wants that role).
Things look up, though, almost immediately for Finn. Moments after arriving at the Beaverfield Inn to check in for a few nights as he searches a more permanent place, he meets Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), an unnaturally upbeat, ultra-cheerful postal worker, gossip guide, and soon enough, the object of Finn's romantic interest. Cecily seems to know everything about everyone in the town, up to and including potentially embarrassing secrets, but for Finn, that’s less a red flag than an endearing, quirky quality in a dream girl. A daytime side-trip to the local bar solidifies Finn and Cecily's mutual interest, setting them up both as (future) romantic couple and a tag-team sleuths once the disappearances and deaths-by-mauling in Beaverfield begin to mount.
The other residents of Beaverfield or its immediate environs include Emerson Flint (Glenn Fleshler), the aforementioned survivalist and mountain man, Pete (Michael Chernus) and Trisha Anderton (Michaela Watkins), longtime residents eager to cash in on the pipeline, Devon (Cheyenne Jackson) and Joaquim Wolfson (Harvey Guillén), transplanted tech millionaires against the pipeline, Marcus (George Basil) and Gwen (Sarah Burns), a semi-deadbeat couple, Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), the pipeline’s rep, Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), Parker’s environmentalist nemesis, and Jeanine (Catherine Curtin), the inn’s owner whose husband of two-plus-decades apparently ran away to Belize a month earlier with another woman.
Broad introductions and backgrounds over, Werewolves Within finally gets to its triggering or inciting incident: Trisha’s dog goes missing, likely killed and eaten by whatever awaits unsuspecting nighttime hikers in the nearby forest. That, in turn, leads to the town’s residents rushing to the inn for an impromptu meeting, a firearm-heavy sleepover, and murder-mystery game as deep-seated animosities emerge, turning everyone, with the possible exception of Finn, into a suspect.
Soon enough, a snowstorm hits, the power in the town goes out, and someone gets attacked inside the inn. Safety or strength in numbers means little when there’s a killer(s) hiding in plain sight, though inevitably that turns out to be a better alternative than the group, in true horror-genre style, splintering into smaller, more vulnerable groups.
Directing wise, Ruben improves significantly from his feature debut, Scare Me, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. While Scare Me suffered from an overindulgent running time and a loose, vignette-heavy approach to storytelling, Werewolves Within is a much more cohesive, coherent narrative, in large part thanks to Mishna Wolff’s clever, deftly written screenplay.
Wolff’s script strikes a reasonable balance tone-wise between horror, comedy, and mystery, though overall Werewolves Within intentionally has fewer scares than it does laughs. Ruben deliberately (and for some, disappointingly) keeps the gore to a minimum or even off-screen early on, gradually ramping it up in the second half. Still, given the central premise and audience expectations, the gore in Werewolves Within remains relatively restrained. There’s nothing in Werewolves Within to match ferociously gory genre classics like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Ginger Snaps, and Dog Soldiers (among many others).
Add to that a top-to-bottom talented cast of comedically oriented thespians — to borrow an already outdated meme, they most certainly understood the assignment — and Werewolves Within delivers on its premise and promise, offering up both a worthy addition to the werewolf sub-genre and just as importantly, a pleasantly engaging diversion for the entirety of its economical, efficient running time.
Werewolves Within premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 16. It will be released theatrically on June 25, followed by a VOD release on July 2, via IFC Films.
- Josh Ruben
- Mishna Wolff
- Sam Richardson
- Milana Vayntrub
- George Basil