Ensemble murder mysteries are always a good time, provided you’re not actually living in one, and that’s especially the case when it comes to those with a comedic bent. From Clue (1985) to Knives Out (2019), it’s a subgenre that aims to entertain and delight even as it works to keep viewers on their toes. The latest example to enter the fray arrives with a hairy bang, and I swear Werewolves Within is far funnier and more wholesome than that description makes it sound. It’s also, and this is no small thing, quite possibly the first great video game adaptation?
Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson) is a forest ranger whose recent misstep elsewhere has landed him in the small, nowhere town of Beaverfield. His arrival catches the eye of the locals, and he immediately discovers they’re an extremely eccentric bunch starting with three more recent transplants in the town’s postal carrier Cecily Moore (Milana Vayntrub), and a tech entrepreneur named Devon Wolfson (Cheyenne Jackson) who moved here with his husband Joachim (Harvey Guillen). Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall) is an oil man trying to persuade locals to lease their land to his company, Emerson Flint (Glenn Fleshler) is a local trapper with no patience for other people, Trish Anderton (Michaela Watkins) is a quick-to-anger dog owner, and a handful of others are equally odd.
Quirky is one thing, but when a body is discovered under the hotel’s porch, a clearly mutilated body, the town’s weird population takes a turn becoming both suspicious and dangerous. A winter storm moves in and isolates the town, power generators are intentionally destroyed, and soon bodies start hitting the floor and turning the white snow red. There’s clearly a killer among them, but as the corpses pile up the evidence does too — this killer might just be a werewolf.
Director Josh Ruben and writer Mishna Wolff (!) joined forces to adapt the cult favorite video game, and their Werewolves Within is a howlingly hilarious winner. Paranoia and personality clashes build alongside sharp dialogue, character quirks, and some bloody demises, and the mystery itself is well-crafted to leave viewers guessing through to the end. It’s a small film and far from flashy, but it delivers more laughs than most studio comedies while also celebrating the power of a pitch perfect ensemble cast.
The film is an ensemble comedy, but Richardson takes what amounts to the lead as other characters look to him as a figure of authority while he investigates the killings. Viewers meet the locals as he does, and his bemused bewilderment is matched by our own. Finn is also a truly nice guy, one who fights rudeness with kindness, and fans of Richardson’s work (Spy, 2015; Good Boys, 2019; Veep, 2014-2019) will appreciate seeing him bring that personality and delivery to a lead role. He’s a self-effacing charmer, and he’s in great company with an equally strong comedic cast. They’re all good, but Vayntrub deserves her own shout-out as she nearly steals every scene she’s in with a fast wit, sharp timing, and a mischievous smile.
Werewolves Within blends its laughs and homicide with some sly but subtle commentary on today’s America as the tiny town’s populace, roughly a dozen people, show how easy it is turn on your neighbor. They differ in various ways, but one big motivation leading to their increased paranoia and mistrust comes down to the almighty dollar. The oil company’s offer has the town divided, and it’s enough to suspect that it might very well be a factor in the killings. Add in the town’s high number of guns per person, and you have an icily hilarious powder keg just waiting to blow as isolation, fear, and a lack of clarity take their toll.
Ruben’s sophomore feature follows his 2020 debut, Scare Me, and expands that film’s far smaller footprint in notable ways while still feeling pretty contained. The extra geography helps give Werewolves Within a bit more breathing room as Finn and Cecily move around town before everyone holes up at the hotel, and Wolff’s script gives Ruben a lot to play with — something his own Scare Me script, while smart and humorous, lacks. He shows a smart and lively eye finding set-pieces and interactions that delight and others that thrill, and while the film leans far more comedic than horrifying it doesn’t shy away from the carnage.
From the opening Mr. Rogers quote — complete with and loud slam cue that immediately earns a smile — through its final revelations, Werewolves Within balances homicidal humans with the possibility of something more. It’s Clue meets The Beast Must Die (1974), and that’s a thing of beauty even if it sadly lacks a “werewolf break.” Of course, we know all too well that supernatural threats and inhuman monsters ain’t got nothing on a panicked American faced with the unknown. “Everyone here is a little questionable,” says one of the questionables, and it’s an unavoidable truth both on the screen and off. Happily, for now at least, the questions also come with plenty of laughs.