Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within juggles genre and tone to deliver a moderately pleasing diversion for fans of comedy and horror.
Werewolves Within is a new comedy/horror/mystery hybrid, directed by Josh Ruben and written by Mishna Wolff. Based on a VR video game of the same name – one that I had never heard of, for the record – it starts us off with Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson), a forest ranger new to town, who arrives just before a terrible snowstorm. But bad weather isn’t the biggest problem he has to watch out for: a series of strange, animalistic attacks are ravaging the town, which some suspect to be caused by a werewolf (as these things often are). One night, Finn and several other townspeople find themselves together within a lodge … …and the potential werewolf behind the attacks is among them. Naturally, paranoia rises, chaos is spread, secrets are revealed, and Finn tries to maintain order among these increasingly crazed residents and unravel the truth of what’s really going on.
I described this movie as combining three different genres, but I can comfortably call it a comedy above anything else. It opens up with a quote, and the way it reveals who said it immediately sets the tone and tells you what kind of movie Werewolves Within will be: one that has a horror/thriller-type exterior, but that injects it with a very irreverent sense of humor. And it uses this to deliver a film that, while not exceptional, contains a good deal of fun that I enjoyed for what it was. For the most part, the comedy is interwoven with the “scarier” aspects fairly well, in that it never feels like it wants you to take anything you’re seeing that seriously.
Highly exaggerated characterizations, riffs on horror clichés, and even a few off-beat filmmaking choices are abundant in Werewolves Within, and I’d say about three out of every four are legitimately funny. The rest get a laugh in a somewhat ironic way, with me not quite sure what they were going for. But it’s still entertaining even then, and I appreciate how it never veers too far from that zaniness. The closest I can think of to compare the film to is 2019’s Ready or Not, though it never gets quite as intense as that movie can be. The film also looks nice – solid work by cinematographer Matt Wise – and has some fun with background details, humorous reveals, and subversions of tropes usually present in a setup like this.
Despite all that, Werewolves Within is a little slow to get going. Not in terms of the pacing, as it’s pretty solid there, but regarding how long it takes for things to really become interesting. The first half-hour or so is largely just our main character being shown around and witnessing the eccentricities of his new neighbors, most of which just kind of go in one ear and out the other. Throughout the movie, actually, a lot of the side characters are really simplified and one-note, occasionally to the point of annoyance.
Where they all shine best, however, is when they’re gathered together and working off of one another. It mixes in a lot of good laughs with a genuinely interesting mystery, to a point where you’re made unsure whether werewolves are even involved at all. It’s also made clear that these people are at best emotionally unstable, and at worst … well, let’s just say it gets ugly. So again, you’re not supposed to feel deeply for any serious plight aside from Finn’s, and you can just sit back and enjoy the ride as they interact and destabilize. However, that also means there’s little to really latch onto. My investment was more out of curiosity and the fun of it all, rather than any emotional connection or deep, profound fascination with anyone.
But just because there’s little depth to Werewolves Within, that doesn’t mean there’s none. The opening quote may have been played for a joke, but it does end up actually tying in to the motifs of the movie revolving around how we treat those within our community. It also plays with taking advantage of the unknown for one’s own agenda and using people as tools to meet an end, and you eventually discover that there’s more than just one reason to be fearful of this group. The final big reveal is actually pretty smart, and even gives more purpose to an earlier subplot I had been ready to write off as relatively weak.
So, the film does the comedy fairly well and has a good mystery. The horror, on the other hand, is what gets the short end of the stick for me. I’m sure most going into this aren’t expecting to be truly terrified, but I can tell some moments are trying to be legitimately intense and suspenseful, yet still come across as pretty tame. There’s also one character whose motivations near the end do not add up to me. Maybe I missed something, but this character does something very extreme that comes out of nowhere, and I can’t think of any earlier scene that foreshadows it. This is especially noticeable when mixed in with other characters’ actions that do have more clarity to them, even at their most extreme.
In the end, Werewolves Within is a fun time. There’s a little more to it than that, but it’s best to watch it as a decent oddball comedy with some other elements sprinkled in. Every aspect has something that’s at least a little off, but it just manages to pull through with its style and humor. I’m safely glad I saw it, and I can recommend it to anyone who thinks it might appeal to them. Not a glowing endorsement, but an endorsement nonetheless. Plus, when viewing it as a whole, it has to rank as one of the best video game movies ever … as low as that bar is.
Werewolves Within opened in US theaters June 25, and on VOD July 2, 2021.
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