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Tribeca 2021 Review: 'Werewolves Within' is on the case

Josh Ruben's 'Werewolves Within' is a frigid interpretation of Ubisoft's game about deception, survival, and convincing others you're not a werewolf.

It's hunting time in 'Werewolves Within.'
(Image: © IFC Midnight)

Our Verdict

'Werewolves Within' is more about the murders than it is deception and tongue-lashings, which is a bit of a disappointment as the mystery subsides—but never an outright failure.

For

  • 🐺 Sam Richardson is a fun lead.
  • 🐺 When the characters congregate, the chaos is enjoyable.
  • 🐺 Isolated mountain vibes.

Against

  • 🐺 Rather generic plot.
  • 🐺 Feels like the verbal twists are lacking.
  • 🐺 Plays as expected, which is an issue.

Werewolves Within is part of our Tribeca 2021 coverage. 

A parlor mystery about Lycanthrope lies and whodunit humor directed by Josh Ruben of Scare Me fame? Werewolves Within is my ideal midnighter conceit but doesn’t meet the filmmaker's previous achievement in dialogue-heavy engagement. I was quick to commend Ruben’s appointment to Werewolves Within given how Scare Me relies on character charisma and nothing but dialogue to generate suspense—a slam dunk union. The problem is that writer Mishna Wolff structures this Ubisoft video game adaptation with vastly more generic conformity than Scare Me, down to a rather hasty recreation of gameplay elements.

It’s crisply framed in terms of wintery Nowheresville cinematography, hairy at times, and can be a mountain-town hoot thanks to a mischievous cast of rogues. Werewolves Within just never unleashes the hounds in an ultimate creature-feature pointing of fingers for lack of more appropriate phrasing.

We meet Finn (Sam Richardson) as he relocates to the snow-covered rural community of Beaverfield, where he’ll assume ranger duties. Jeanine (Catherine Curtin) welcomes the newcomer to her quaint and spacious inn, where mailwoman Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) introduces herself to Finn. Some more locals make themselves known, from a surly mechanic (Sarah Burns) to a businessman with pipe laying dreams (Wayne Duvall) to wealthy hipster partners (Harvey Guillén and Cheyenne Jackson). Then Finn discovers a body under Jeanine’s porch and claw markings on all the town’s generators, leaving everyone locked inside together, powerless, with only one question—is there a werewolf hiding in plain sight?

Werewolves Within tickles our funnybones by starting with a quote by Mr. Rogers about listening to our neighbors. Smash cut to Finn’s blatant attempts at overcoming self-esteem issues as the film’s resident softie pushover. He’s our Mr. Rogers of sorts, claiming a duality against the venom and selfishness of Beaverfield locals before the corpse tally begins (well, officially). Sam Richardson is the man for the job as Finn, extending the mileage of any scene through wholesome yet fumbling—authentically aghast—magnetism that plays the lawful good arc against more chaotic others. He’s the anchor between junkyard junkies and fully-loaded conservatives who start flying off the handle, and Richardson’s never better than timidly playing stuck in the middle, respecting the gravity of dread while digesting absurdity with a plastered astonishment through facial expressions. Considerable leading man energy from a typecast officer or sidekick prior.

Enter the virtual reality game’s mechanics where villagers (aka players) sit around a fire trying their damndest to uncover the werewolves in their midst. In Ruben’s movie and Wolff’s screenplay, Beaverfield residents are permitted to explore outside grounds to avoid the stuffiness of a more contained location thriller reliant on forked tongues. It’s a bit duller than any extravagance akin to Hercule Poirot, and dare I say, lacks excitement through debates? Werewolves Within focuses on the stalker-killer aspect, hinging on fundamental expectancies as “players” fit their roles without deception. Personalities are painted painfully obvious, to the point where there’s never really a contest afoot besides betting on life expectancies as syrup manufacturers, burly survivalist trappers, and yoga enthusiasts do more than sharpen their verbal threats. Wolff addresses Ubisoft’s multiplayer standoff at its barest skeletal bones, and conversations—where lip-smacking deviousness should reside—become more about “ANTIFA” jokes or limp red herrings.

An extension of Richardson's saving grace is his supporting cast, most notably Milana Vayntrub as the immediate postal love interest who is cuter than a flannel’s button (character arc dependant). Vayntrub latches onto Richardson, and their dynamic fulfills whenever Cecily razzes the indecisive and blindly faithful Finn, even during a rather romantic axe-throwing diversion. Their shots land, whereas Harvey Guillén millennials his way through some extraordinarily laugh-out-loud lines paired with other flops as stereotypical outlines become a detriment to performances. I adore Michaela Watkins so often, but she’s shoehorned into the hysterical pet owner left only with a torn collar whose gun-friendly, mistrusting nature becomes unpredictable in her state of grief. There’s good, and there’s overkill. The cast's talents are never in question, just their readable motivations and aggressive combativeness.

In the end, Werewolves Within loses points by leaving itself infinitely more straightforward than, say, its indie comparison Beast Within (a previous, unrelated riff on this exact multiplayer concept that’s its own pseudo remake of The Beast Must Die). The parlor allure of deviants and mouthy mysteries is lost as death becomes a permanent fixture, similar to my issues with Jim Cummings’ The Wolf Of Snow Hollow. There’s a world where Josh Ruben writes and directs Werewolves Within, and that’s the version my initial hype craves. I don’t intend to wash away someone else’s efforts, but this calamitous “Guess Who?” leaves much to be desired in frameworks that are never fierce nor monumentally witty in terms of fooling anyone once fangs flash the woflian winner (maybe winners). Never as clever as trailers intend to showcase, albeit worth a few yucks and yelps.