Werewolves Within is a comedy horror film adapted from a video game based on the party game Werewolf (which is another version of Mafia). Based on that description, Werewolves Within might sound like an M. C. Escher labyrinth of Hollywood unoriginality, the result of a studio bending over backward to license the last property standing. But it’s a quainter affair: low-budget, high-concept, and handled by the small, venerable IFC Films, Werewolves Within is the rare video game movie to aim for quality over marketability. Or maybe the first video game movie to aim for quality whatsoever. It’s not a high-caliber genre.
The movie opens with the foreboding presentation of a Mr. Rogers quote about listening to your neighbors—which, if you’ve ever played Werewolf, comes off as the perfect introduction. It’s a game of deception: a group of players is assigned secret roles, one or some of which will be werewolves, and then the moderator instructs everyone to close their eyes. During the “night”, each role is woken up one at a time to perform a unique task, whether it be checking another player’s role, finding out if anyone shares your role, or exchanging the roles of two unwitting players. Once everyone’s done, they open their eyes and launch into a debate over who’s the werewolf and who’s not, trying to reconstruct the night’s events and suss out who’s who. That’s when the lying begins. You might lie about your role while coming across as earnest, or attract undue attention to see who’s most relieved over losing the spotlight, or realize halfway through that you became the werewolf in the night and be forced to retool your story in real time. At the end of the debate, the group votes on who to execute, and the team that doesn’t suffer capital punishment wins. Only then are the roles revealed, laying bare who conned you or sold you out. Therein lies the twist: the werewolves aren’t the real danger. Listening to your neighbor is.
Werewolves Within gets that, but it still has room for a dangerous werewolf. It kills somebody in the opening scene. The victim is a resident of Beaverfield, a tiny, Fargo-esque town full of snow and strange characters. Its newest arrival is Finn (Sam Richardson), a forest ranger who didn’t anticipate having to solve unusual murders, but here he is. As the town’s happenings get more inexplicable, Finn enlists the help of postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) to gather the residents at the local inn and sort out what’s going on. This proves difficult, especially because the populace is split by an impending vote over whether to build a pipeline through Beaverfield. An environmentalist and a pipeline advocate are visiting town to butt heads over that as well.
The film doesn’t play coy about its low budget. By and large, Werewolves Within is extremely nimble at navigating a supernatural story without a pit of special effects money. But a low budget doesn’t excuse amateurish technical choices, of which there are many. The sound editing is overzealous, for one: a loud, iMovie-level sound effect plays for every “jump scare” (in quotes because they’re meant to entertain, not frighten), which goes from annoying to comically overused then back to annoying again. And the dialogue is hard to hear sometimes, as if the mics were held too far from the actors. There are a handful of crash zoom montages to keep the pace lively, à la Edgar Wright, but they lack the precision and timing needed to match the verve of the sequences they’re imitating. The film isn’t falling apart at the seams from a technical standpoint—the editor knows exactly when to cut after a killer punchline—but it’s noticeably unpolished.
The ensemble cast is more consistent. Werewolves Within is crawling with comedic talent, many of whom haven’t gotten a chance to shine like this yet. They’re all game for the lighthearted black comedy tone that director Josh Ruben is going for, but there are a few standouts: Rebecca Henderson bestows the environmentalist with hilarious facial contortions; George Basil goes off his hinges as a mentally compromised boyfriend; and Milana Vayntrub’s performance, which toes the very human line between loquacious and aloof, should make her a star. The only weak point in the ensemble is a gay couple played by Harvey Guillén and Cheyenne Jackson, but that’s the script’s fault. They’re written way too stereotypically—like they were gay best friends in mid-2000s comedies before finding each other in Beaverfield.
The third act is also the script’s fault. The first two acts are frequently clever and funny, and they set up a great blueprint for the duplicity of its otherwise simple residents. So, when the ensemble gathers for their “who’s the werewolf” debate 55 minutes in, expectations couldn’t be higher. But then Werewolves Within kind of gives up. Instead of escalating into the mind maze of psychological torture that the game turns into, the film has its cast scatter into the forest, where they begin acting out at each other in crazy but character-specific ways. The idea that your neighbors are the real danger is still intact, but the mystery is all but gone. No one’s descent into madness indicates that they might be the werewolf—it only shows that under pressure, they’re not the good people they pretended to be. There’s even a monologue to explain that idea in case you didn’t get it. That kernel of a theme survives to the end, but the tense whodunit does not. Werewolves Within gets less intense as the film goes on, as screenwriter Mishna Wolff (hey!) doesn’t even try to maintain the thrill of seeing past fake identities and carefully constructed lies.
No one said the movie has to echo the game like that, but it would’ve been better off if it did. Still, the bar for video game movies is low, and the effort behind Werewolves Within handily earns it the title of best video game movie ever made. And surprisingly for the genre, it also sports a subversive feminist streak, which is sure to make a chunk of the target audience angry. You know what they say: if gamers are mad, it’s probably good.