Werewolves Within review

‘Werewolves Within’ Is the Best Video Game Adaptation of All Time

As a whodunit that may or may not involve lycanthropes, Werewolves Within has its share of plot twists. But for me, the biggest surprise happened in the closing credits, which read “Based on the video game Werewolves Within.”

I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Not only does the French game developer studio Ubisoft get the movie’s first production logo, but Werewolves Within feels like a game. At its core, the movie is about a straight-laced outsider who comes into a community to figure out which one of its many weird residents is a killer. We, the viewers, follow along, jumping at clues and making our guesses as it unfolds.

Sam Richardson‘s forest ranger Finn is our player surrogate, freshly deployed to the wintery New England town of Beaverton. Guided by letter carrier Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), Finn meets the town locals, which includes a volatile pair of ne’er-do-wells (George Basil and Sarah Burns), a WASPY duo and their little dog (Michaela Watkins and Michael Chernus), a newly rich tech couple (Harvey Guillén and Cheyanne Jackson), and kindly innkeeper Jeanine (Catherine Curtin).

While Finn jumps at the chance to ingratiate himself with the quaint townspeople, a proposed pipeline is tearing the community apart. Some want to make bank by selling to oil company man Parker (Wayne Duvall). Others stand firm against the destruction of nature, rallying behind reclusive Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson).

The game is on after Finn’s investigation into a missing dog turns up the corpse of Jeanine’s husband. Tensions already heightened by the pipeline debate explode as Finn and Cecily persuade everyone to spend the night together in Jeanine’s hotel. As the whacky characters bounce off one another, viewers are invited to piece together the clues and try to figure out who is the werewolf.

While some have called Werewolves WithinKnives Out with Wolfmen,” the movie’s video game roots point it toward another game adaptation: 1985’s Clue. While the film recreates the video game’s “guess the killer” approach, it follows the Clue model of letting comedy ringers create outrageous characters from the broad source material. It’s a blast watching Watkins’s intolerable craft lady rant about Basil and Burns’ lowlifes or listening to Guillén’s gentle yuppy have a moment of self-realization and he and his husband shun outsiders for being too different.

A movie with so many sketch-comedy standouts runs the risk of devolving into chaos, with each cartoon character shouting over the other for the camera’s attention. But director Josh Ruben and screenwriter Mishna Wolff wisely keep the focus on Finn, who keeps the lunatics from running the show. As he’s done throughout his career, especially in the caustic HBO series Veep, Richardson turns innate likability into a comic springboard. As a genuinely kind man who wants to be a good neighbour, Finn could as a straight man or (worse) becoming a killjoy, demanding that everyone else stop being so much fun.

Werewolves Within cast

But instead, Richardson mines kindness for sympathetic laughs. We see that in an early scene in which Finn first meets Emerson, a reclusive survivalist played by Glenn Fleshler. After a set of false scares, Finn spins around to find the bearded Emerson, wearing layers of furs and a bear head for a hat. Finn instinctively whips out a can of mace. But between his look of determination and his smile of greeting, there’s a bachelor second of utter embarrassment, eyes darting from the mace to the man and recognizing that he’s betrayed his neighbourly values and nearly attacked another person.

It’s those kinds of insightful comic skills that make Werewolves Within work. Wolff has crafted a perfect plot for the characters to do their thing without becoming overbearing and Ruben reigns in the anarchy. In fact, the story might be a little too tight, as it gives room for the comedians to work, but some worthwhile elements are choked out.

Ruben proves adept at staging scare sequences, which is especially impressive given the films clearly limited special-effects budget. But at no time does the viewer fear for the characters, because they are such cartoons. An explosion of violence late in the film takes out three characters at once, and we laugh at the Rube Goldberg effect of the scene, but we never gasp in terror.

Perhaps more importantly, early parts of the movie play with tropes about fantasy women, but then drop the idea until bringing it up again in a speech in the climactic scene. It’s a compelling speech, so much that it makes the viewer wish the movie would have played more with the idea and paired it with Finn’s nice guy story.

However, those are very small complaints in what is otherwise a delightful film. Werewolves Within so perfectly captures the feeling of a chaotic game night with friends that perhaps for the first time ever, the video game has a lot to live up to if it’s going to match the brilliance of its film adaptation.

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