Forest Ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) arrives at his new assignment in the isolated Vermont town of Beaversfield, and quickly meets the various inhabitants including quirky mail carrier Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), oil magnate Parker (Wayne Duvall) and isolationist trapper Emerson (Glenn Fleshler). When the town is isolated in a snowstorm and people start dying in unexplainably bloody circumstances, Finn and the townspeople must confront the possibility that one among them is a half-human, half-wolf monster.
We start off 2022 with a film that was a 2021 release in most of the rest of the world, but has taken its bow on Irish shores through Netflix on New Years Day. And it was an obvious one for me to take in. My days as part of the NUIM Games Society included plenty of rounds of Werewolves, a variation on the Mafia card game, that involves a group of players taking on the various roles of people in a lycanthrope-afflicted town, only some of them are secretly werewolves and are actively killing the other players. It’s a fun game and an easy premise for a film. This might be based more on the video game of the same name than the card game, but in essence they are pretty much the same thing.
And for much the same reasons that the card game is fun to play, Werewolves Within also succeeds pretty well. It’s a low-budget horror that could easily succumb to the temptation to be a gore-fest out to attract only a very certain kind of audience, but instead it decides to lean into the psychological side of things. The real horror of the premise isn’t that werewolves are killing people one-by-one, it’s that you don’t know who the werewolves are: could it be the cute postal worker you have a thing for? The obnoxious rich guy trying to buy out the town to build a gas pipeline? The creepy trapper in the cabin who threatens to shoot anyone that comes near him? The town drunk? The town crazy lady? The yuppies who moved here recently? How about you?
You see what I mean. There’s lots of drama to be mined there, and Werewolves Within goes for it. But, understanding the nature of these kinds of role playing games, it doesn’t veer away from the slapstick comedy angle either. We spend an entertaining first act getting to know the residents of Beaversfield both old and new, with a particular emphasis on Finn and Cecily, the closest the town has to outsiders. Finn’s an almost stereotypical beta male trying desperately to be a stereotypical alpha, but he’s having some trouble: it’s only when he outlines the status of a long distance relationship to Cecily that he realises he actually got dumped. Amidst the various foibles and idiosyncrasies of the town’s population, these early sections set the scene, define the basic character and relationship dynamics, and set-us up nicely for when the bodies start appearing.
Richardson is a newcomer for me (I’ll catch-up on Veep one day), and I think does really well: comparisons to Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out are inevitable I suppose given the genre and the fact that he’s the only black cast member in a very white town, but for me this is something more in the Raimi-line of horror-comedy protagonists (throw in a touch of Taiki Watiti in there too actually) with Finn very out-of-his-depth, and showing it, but still a fundamentally decent guy just trying to get by (there’s an excellent through line where Richardson’s Paddington-esque nature goes against the self-help books that encourage him to stop being “nice for no reason” and embrace a very wolfish masculinity). His back and forth with Vayntrub is one of the highlights of the experience, with the two exhibiting a pretty clear spark right from the off.
It doesn’t take too long for some bodies to start showing up anyway, as the tangle of enmities and grudges within Beaverfield starts to trip people up. Werewolves Within might struggle the most with its middle section, as the townspeople take shelter from the storm together and everyone starts thinking the other person might be the bad guy. This is basic psychological drama, and to a certain extent the film is playing a waiting game with its audience that it struggles to fulfill: we’re all just waiting for the proverbial to hit the fan, and while Werewolves Within fills up the space with a few extra clues about the larger mystery and some decent back-and-forth between a cast of little knowns and lower-tier comedians (a moment when two characters struggle with a locked door got full on belly laughs from me), it’s still all just a delay until we get to the promise of the premise.
That comes in a fairly explosive last act, when things break down and we get to the meat and bones, so to speak. Director Josh Ruben (best known for College Humour skits), with writer Mishna Wolff, seems to have an understanding of the game at least, where things move fast enough once you reach a certain tipping point in the ratio of humans to werewolves. In the town of Beaversfield, it seems like everyone has some kind of grudge against someone else that is only being inflamed by the werewolf situation, and so they don’t really need all that much of a push to grab their guns, knives and crossbows. The result is an entertaining last half-hour or so where all hell breaks loose and the mystery of who is, and who isn’t, a werewolf finally does get solved. Werewolves Within leaves most of its effects budget, with fireballs, blood and some dodgy make-up, for this section, and it’s again a credit to the creators that they had the patience to let the last act be the blow-off, rather than just another stop on a gore-soaked road.
Ruben is dealing with what I assume is a pretty low budget of course, but does quite well regardless. Beaversfield, really an area near Woodstock, New York, looks suitably miserable and windswept, and the director has an eye for making things seem claustrophobic that really shouldn’t be, like the inn where everyone ends up staying, or the woods that are such an imposing backdrop. Moments of horror and moments of blood are framed really well, and Ruben does a good job in cutting around the missing extremities and savage werewolf attacks, so that your head fills in the blanks that the financials just can’t. This is low-budget indie filmmaking at a high-level of quality, and while it is just one of the latest in a long list of horror films dealing with such restrictions – I mean, low-budget indie filmmaking seems to come out with a dozen horror movies every week on streaming options, or so it seems to me – it’s still one that is bound to catch the eye the right way, with nods to the styles of Spielberg and Wright, among others.
We’ve started the year off better than we have in a while. Werewolves Within is unlikely to feature on many end of year lists, but it’s still a fine effort that represents, technically, the best video game based movie of recent times that I have had the pleasure of seeing (though that really isn’t saying much, is it?). It has a good cast, understands the dynamics of what it is based on well enough to translate them into this medium and ultimately is just a fun, engaging horror adventure that will elicit a few laughs at the same time. When it comes New Years Day, you can’t really look for much more. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of IFC Films).