When it comes to adapting games, especially video games, for cinema, the track record is low for success. While there’s some fun to be had in Doom (2005) or Mortal Kombat (1995), it’s best not to mention any appreciation for Street Fighter (1994) or Super Mario Bros. (1993) in any kind of mixed company if you want to maintain any street cred. (Disclaimer: I possess an unabashed love for SMB.) 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog gets pretty close to taking the top spot, mostly for capturing the spirit of Sonic and his nemesis than the 1:1 recreation. It’s in that vein that the new crown-holder for game adaptation comes in the form of one audiences may not even realize is inspired by a Playstation VR game from Ubisoft, the whodunit Werewolves Within. This mostly inoffensive horror-comedy feels a bit like Clue (1985) (one of the great game adaptations of all time), Knives Out (2019), with a generous helping of atmosphere reminiscent of Ready or Not (2019). While that might sound like a strange concoction, it all comes together as a deliciously dark, devilishly hilarious, and surprisingly heartfelt adventure where you’ll be second-guessing yourself until the very last moment.
Forest Ranger Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) is given a year assignment to the town of Beaverfield, Vermont, to oversee the development of a pipeline whose potential arrival is causing a ruckus among the townspeople. With the help of fellow new arrival mailperson Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub), Finn quickly gets the lay of the land and rundown of all the locals. Just as he begins to settle in, a storm hits Beaverfield, blocking the road and taking the power down, creating a window of opportunity to do something nefarious under the cover of darkness. Gathering everyone at the local inn, Finn attempts to keep everyone calm before attempting to suss out the culprit. But with tensions already high from disagreements about the pipeline, everyone has a motive and the storm is the perfect opportunity. Murder under the cover of darkness makes everyone twitchy, even more so when evidence suggests something more akin to beast is responsible.
For those not in the know of the source material, Werewolves Within functions as a roundtable experience wherein the players tries to determine who is behind, what appear to be, a series of attacks from a werewolf. It’s a game of social reasoning and deduction, requiring players to become their character, fully assuming the role of whichever they are assigned: The Werewolf, The Gossip, The Watcher, and others. What first time screenwriter Mishna Wolff does brilliantly is adapting this concept for the screen, where Finn serves as the audience’s surrogate whose navigation of a new town smoothly enables the audience to get to know Beaverfield before all heck breaks loose. And when it does break loose, it does so via an invigorating approach: restraint. Director Josh Rubin’s (Scare Me) use of restraint falls in line, tonally, with its lead Finn, a man so restrained that his kindness is glossed over as weakness, as well as thematically with a whodunit. The audience doesn’t need to see the carnage to know that someone died or was mangled, it’s the reaction of the characters that matters. In this regard, Wolff and Rubin aim less for terrifying and more for unsettling. There’s a killer on the loose and it could be one of them? Worse, it could be a werewolf? But do werewolves exist? Does it matter? Is it better to conceive of a killer with motive versus a lycanthrope feeding on humans? Both speak to a certain kind of nature and it’s here that the film will send your skin crawling.
In the production notes, Rubin states, “… as much as I love horror movies, nothing scare me more than people.” This gets to the heart of why Werewolves Within works as well as it does. Like in Ready or Not, where it ultimately didn’t matter if the film possessed any kind of supernatural elements to make it creepy, it matters not here. That someone could be so self-righteous, so singular in their thinking that killing someone becomes the easy thing in order to get what you want would seem petty in previous years, but takes on a different edge more than a year into the pandemic. It makes the in-fighting among the neighbors feel more violent, more biting than it might otherwise. Add to this the fact that few members of their community are preventing the rest from making bank from the pipeline (it requires unanimous consent to start building) and suddenly everyone who wants it has several zeroes as motivation, while those who don’t become a tad self-important. Aided by some brilliant comedic timing from the cast and a clever script from Wolff, the townsfolk are at least given shades so that they don’t become stereotypes as they devolve from the typical friendly-yet-judgey neighbors of a small town into feeding speculation with each passing moment and every violent act.
The beating heart of the film comes in the form of Finn. For all of its leanings on horror tropes, all the in-fighting, mistrust, and violence that isolation and terror inspire, Werewolves is a startlingly up-beat tale. As Rubin continues, “This movie is a tribute to those of us who are resolute that good conquers evil, and that ‘being good’ is the best weapon we’ve got, against guns, knives, even claws … Sometimes, you just gotta be a good neighbor, no matter how wicked people are.” It’s not just Finn’s reluctance to curse, his overly positive attitude, or his inclination to believe the best in people, it’s that this same notion comes through to the audience via the presentation of events. Rubin doesn’t show us the violence; he could and many may expect it, but it’s not necessary in the slightest to the narrative. It doesn’t matter how someone is injured or whether they survive, but how Finn and the rest react. Do they gather together to ensure everyone’s safety or do they grow more suspect of one another? Is their reaction to the violence to care for their fellows or to push them away? Just as the game is all about discussion, using words to deduce and confirm guilt or innocence, the film’s lack of visible bloodletting isn’t a sign of weakness, but is of compassion. To not delight in the violence wrought unto one’s neighbor, to come to their aid, to work together in a time of crisis…is that the best form of goodliness? It shouldn’t matter how bad someone treated you or thought of you in times of crisis. Their pain is your pain and one shouldn’t revel in it. Thus, we have Finn, brought to life beautifully by Richardson (whose next project sees him trying to save the future in Amazon’s The Tomorrow War), who plays the always cool, if not always timid Finn with a humanity most heroes would lose by the final act. There’s a subversive element to Finn, the sole Black man in a horror film trying to speak reason and keep calm doesn’t have a good track record of survival, and while the character does serve as the punchline for many jokes, it’s never at the cost of his dignity. Kindness: it matters from the script to the details of the characters.
One of the things that makes a good whodunit is a grand sense of fun. Having not played the game that inspired the film, I cannot speak to the accuracy (though there are enough differences that this doesn’t appear to be a 1:1 adaptation), but Werewolves Within is *fun*. I giggled at the situational comedy, I felt a sense of protection for Finn at every turn, and I caroused at the revelatory ending. It’s thoughtful, surprising in the right places, and will keep you guessing throughout. The cast is charming, as charming as a group of spit-vipers can be, and each one nails their respective complexity so that none are reduced to mere caricature. Each are given such weight that disclosures, admissions, or discoveries — however small — possess weight that pushes the narrative forward in brilliant ways, like several Chekov’s guns loaded and ready to roll. If you’re looking for something to entertain yourself, something a little dark, a little frightful, and absolutely delightful, I recommend a trip to Beaverfield. Just be careful. As the wind rages and the snow falls, there are werewolves within.
In select theaters June 25th, 2021.
Available on VOD July 2nd, 2021.
For more information, head to IFC Films’s Werewolves Within website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.