As strange as it may seem, the video game-inspired horror comedy Werewolves Within is less about a monster terrorizing a small Vermont town in the dead of winter and more about a single person defending his right to be a nice person in a place where the population seems hellbent on turning on itself. As one might expect, director Josh Ruben (the writer/director/star of Scare Me), working from a screenplay by Mishna Wolff, turns the town of Beaverfield into a microcosm of America, with its newly appointed forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson, in a much-welcome leading role) trying to keep the peace without sacrificing his goodly nature. Working side by side with postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub, probably best known as the woman from the AT&T commercials, but a gifted comic actress in her own right), the two must also unlock the mystery of a series of violent deaths in town that seem to point to the possibility that a werewolf has been set loose.
The film begins with Finn’s arrival in town and Cecily volunteering to show him around and introduce him to as many people as she can on her route, which doubles as a way for the two to get to know each other and even flirt a bit. Because of its isolated nature, Beaverfield is front loaded with eccentrics who value their privacy, living side by side with hipsters who are always on the lookout for the next hot location to invade and drive up the home values. Add to this equation, pipeline entrepreneur Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), who is tempting the residents to sell their property to him so he can turn this place into an industrial wasteland, making him both an early candidate for being killed but also being the killer. We move through the town at such a rapid pace that not everyone we’re introduced to stands out, but with such gifted character actors as Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, Cheyenne Jackson, and Harvey Guillén, they go a long way at establishing themselves in ways that go beyond the screenplay.
But like many comedy ensembles, there’s an almost annoying level of very funny people all vying to be noticed, some by talking at full volume the entire time and some by acting weird and abrasive to stand out. Thankfully, director Ruben is gifted at traffic-controlling his cast, and while nearly everyone gets a moment or two to stand out, it’s rare to see people stepping on each other’s jokes. The town folks represent a cross section of the nation, with many different races, sexual preferences, ages, and levels of paranoia on hand. It should also be noted that although many clues do point to a werewolf, the film leaves open the possibility that this idea may just be speculation run amok, something that apparently happens quite a bit in Beaverfield. Still, just about everyone in the cast takes turns being suspected of being the killer creature at one point, keeping the guessing game very much alive.
Examining the very American idea of blaming the other and needing an enemy to find relevance in oneself is nothing new to the horror or science-fiction genres, but Werewolves Within moves through the subject matter with a certain energy and humor that is rarely present. With Richardson and Vayntrub at the charming center of this madness, the movie has a great deal going for it from the outset. And when we enter the final act, when the suspense and violence are kicked up a notch, things get especially juicy and fully entertaining. I’m not sure what it says about the movie that it gets more enjoyable as more characters die, but I’ll always take horror work that finishes strong and offers a few surprises along the way.
The film opens theatrically on Friday, including at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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