Werewolves Within doesn’t deliver many scares, but it hits an amusing, breezy target that too few horror-comedies manage.
Finn (Sam Richardson) is the new forest ranger in the little town of Beaverfield, which, as friendly (and gossipy) mail carrier Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) tells him, is fraying a little bit, partly because of the pipeline an oil company wants to build through main street, but mostly because everyone’s sort of at each other’s throats to one degree or another. That assessment gets literalized pretty fast, as a vicious storm traps everyone in town, and someone or something starts picking off the citizenry one at a time. They quickly become convinced they’re being stalked by a werewolf.
Mileages will vary here based on just how much quirky charm one can handle, especially since the film doesn’t really bother to counterbalance its humor with anything that could be considered very scary. But with the genre as a whole swerving hard into clumsy politics without much substance, and with horror comedies in particular descending into winky self-reflexivity in order to appeal to hardcore fans and mine their knowledge of genre tropes and gore gags for laughs (see Freaky or the Happy Death Days), it’s refreshing to see something like Werewolves Within come along, getting by almost entirely on the charm of its stacked cast of utility players being served by some tight, purposeful filmmaking. Director Josh Ruben keeps his scope frames either packed with characters bickering or full of dark negative space, and mines some of his biggest laughs with well-timed edits that frequently double as punctuation. Dialogue, meanwhile, is just on the right side of a little too cute.
Mostly, though, it’s the murderer’s row cast that makes this work. Richardson and Vayntrub have such terrific chemistry that it makes their sort of perfunctory potential romance seem sweet instead of cloying. And they’re backed up by a stack of comics that do all of the script’s heavy lifting: Cheyenne Jackson, Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, and Harvey Guillén, not to mention Glenn Fleshler as a scary survivalist nutbag. Collectively they’re helpless, but individually they’re all equally unstable and dangerous, hence the title’s pun, “We’re wolves within.” And so, most of the surprise and suspense is generated not by the mystery of who might be the lycanthrope and when exactly the monster will strike, but rather which of them is going to snap next and who’ll be closest to them when they go off. Everyone’s relationships are stripped bare, and embarrassment usually coincides with a grisly demise. It’s hardly as alchemical as Shaun of the Dead or, more appropriately, An American Werewolf in London, both of which managed to be very funny and scary, but something this amusing and breezy still feels like a treat.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.