WEREWOLVES WITHIN is the second feature film from director, actor, and writer, Josh Ruben, and he has landed another perfect and unconventional horror-comedy. That’s it. That’s the review.
While Scare Me was a chamber piece, largely a duel between two top of their game comedy actors, riffing on storytelling, the battle of the sexes, and people who say they want to create, but don’t want to work that hard, WEREWOLVES WITHIN bursts out to the next level with a full cast and a larger format, but a similar setting. There’s a small and remote Northeast town, there’s lovingly rendered tributes to horror films and horror conventions that have come before it. That’s where the similarities end. It’s really a very cagey expansion of Ruben’s filmmaking without trying too hard to do something different. This expansion is truly a wise step.
Because I am such a fan of Scare Me and Josh Ruben’s work, I have examined WEREWOLVES WITHIN with my most critical lens. I mean, I always examine films closely and with a critical eye. Longtime readers would know this, but I’ve watched the film four times now, trying to find flaws and I have yet to find any. What I have found is a charming, funny, and warm film that’s also frightening and zeroed in on human nature. It works in the most popular of saws in horror, “human beings are the real monsters” and does so with empathy and in a non-judgemental way. It walks the delicate tightrope of horror-comedy with alarming ease, balancing the needs of both genres. It is a film that has its politics rooted in the most fundamental level, human interaction, and trust (or lack thereof). Instead of directly confronting specific political issues that are very pertinent to today’s world, WEREWOLVES looks at the people on the different sides of certain beliefs and allows you to see their human side too. Those who are scared, inattentive, covetous, selfish, and greedy. The film also lets you see their opposite. Those filled with kindness, love, a sense of justice, and understanding. It lets you see that we are the worst and with a little effort and trust, we can also be the best.
Ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) arrives in Beaverfield and finds a small town of bickering eccentrics with Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) as his guide. Soon mysterious events start to happen leading the duo to believe that an unknown force has the town in its grip, but to what purpose? It’s up to the duo to solve the mystery behind the frightening possibility that evil has come to Beaverfield.
The script by Mishna Wolff is a crackerjack piece of writing. It’s integral to the success of the film and the bedrock of one of the best horror comedies I’ve ever seen. The story is filled with resonances and references, the strongest is to John Carpenter’s The Thing, but it’s not the “Hey ma, look how clever I am” type of reference, it’s more along the lines of using the timeless themes of paranoia and mistrust in The Thing to bolster similar themes in WEREWOLVES. Instead of having to downshift the entire tone of the film into much darker and hopeless territory, the references ping your mind to the magnificent and harrowing darkness of one of John Carpenter’s magnum opuses. Yes, Carpenter has more than one.
It’s so clever and so well constructed that I really recommend watching it a second time soon after your first viewing. It will actually be funnier the second time and I say this as a person who was laughing so hard that I was crying at 3 a.m. when the film ended. You won’t know what I really mean until you’ve seen it, but trust me, you’ll thank me later. What Mishna Wolff has done is magic.
Josh Ruben has directed WEREWOLVES WITHIN with a delightful and buoyant flair in which horror and humor are twins and best friends. He knows the secret, that humor and horror are fatally intertwined and he uses that knowledge tactically. Tension is exacerbated by humor and things are funnier when you are scared. There’s no overt gore or graphic violence, but there doesn’t have to be. One of the scariest things in the movie is something I saw happening in the deep background. It terrified me. My eyes turned into giant saucers and I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I knew there was nothing I could do and I would just have to wait and see what would happen. I had no control over the situation and the giant fear factory in my brain came up with some really awful possibilities. I was so scared for the characters that I was truly frightened. Loss of control took over and is there really anything scarier than that? That, my friends, is what horror is all about. Also, the level of tension that Ruben brings to simple acts, like knitting, is deeply unnerving. Mr. Rogers hasn’t been this scary ever before. Ruben’s level of attention to the details of character and action is what makes his brand of horror really work. You might not be paying attention, but he is. He’s also done what is generally accepted as impossible. He’s made a great video game movie adaptation.
Every part of the film works together in harmony. The casting is wonderful. Each one of the characters and the actors playing them is, once again, working at the top of their game. The leads, Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub are adorable together. You feel a genuine connection, and you root for them as a potential couple and a monster hunting team. George Basil (“Crashing”) as Marcus, Sarah Burns (“Barry”), Michael Chernus (“Tommy”), Catherine Curtin (“Orange is the New Black”) as Jeanine Sherman, Wayne Duvall (The Hunt) as Sam Parker, Harvey Guillén (“What We Do In The Shadows”) as Joachim Wolfson, Rebecca Henderson (“Russian Doll”), Cheyenne Jackson (“30 Rock”) as Devon Wolfson, Michaela Watkins (Brittany Runs a Marathon) as Trish Anderson, and Glenn Fleshler (“True Detective”) as Emerson Flint. The casting department definitely deserves a shout-out. Gayle Keller (Hustlers, “What We Do In The Shadows”) and Emer O’Callaghan (“What We Do In The Shadows”, “Mindhunter”) have done an excellent job of finding some really funny and talented actors for the roles. Do I know some of these weirdos in real life? Yes.
A word about the music, the orchestral score by Anna Drubich (Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark) is fantastic, it has sinuous swirls of woodwinds and haunting undertones of piano but doesn’t hold back with the terror-filled blasts of horns and percussion that leap out at the audience when needed. The music is used to maximum effect in many scenes. Dan Wilcox is the music supervisor and he’s done an excellent job of securing obscure and extremely catchy tunes that are deployed to tantalize the audience without their knowing it. I don’t know if those pop songs are baked into the script by Wolff or are a collaboration between the filmmakers, but the choices are *chef’s kiss*. Occasionally, there’s a very good throwaway musical joke, check out those ringtones, but even the jaunty pop music has a purpose. It’s not just there to fill time or set a mood. One of Ruben’s other strengths is his love of and use of soundtrack music. It’s almost used as an additional character or maybe it is a character of its own. WEREWOLVES has an uncanny feel for music in general.
Matt Wise (The Sand, P.L.U.G.) handles the cinematography this time and most of the nighttime and/or indoor scenes are suffused with a golden light that is so incredibly warm, especially around Ranger Finn. In fact, there’s a sequence where there’s a triple gel set up that is incredibly flattering to Richardson’s complexion, and didn’t look bad on the other actor, but the lighting clearly was for Richardson which is something I appreciated. Not only was a Black actor the sympathetic lead, but he was also lit with hero lighting that was intended for him alone. Wise also plays with using available light, remote lighting sources, like flashlights, and a glaring and cold daylight icy lighting that highlights the remote and frigid setting where the principals are cut off from help and civilization. They were working on the isolation of the setting from the get-go and with lighting as well as location. It’s very well done.
WEREWOLVES WITHIN is a werewolf movie with the true meaning of the werewolf in mind. It’s about how the monster is within us. Hiding and biding its time, ready to spring out at us when we forget to think of others and act as a community. That being a good neighbor is what makes us better and stronger and more likely to survive. That kindness isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength that can best the beast. WEREWOLVES WITHIN is a film that will savage your conscience and your funny bone. WEREWOLVES WITHIN is a brilliant and subversive work of comedic genius.
WEREWOLVES WITHIN comes with my strongest recommendation and the thought that it is one of the very best films of 2021. It’s certainly in the Werewolf Pantheon, if there is a Werewolf Pantheon, and come on, shouldn’t there be?
WEREWOLVES WITHIN will be released theatrically on June 25th, 2021, and On-Demand & Digital Platforms on July 2nd, 2021.