The lights have gone out, a storm is raging, and everyone fears for their lives. Dark cabins in woods are a great place for horror stories to set up camp, something Josh Ruben is intimately familiar with. Coming off of Scare Me, Ruben has taken his second shot at horror-comedy with Werewolves Within, a brand-new love letter to horror fans that was written with the same pen.
The residents of Beaverfield are a quirky bunch. The new ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) learns as much on a tour through the snowy village led by Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), the local mailperson (gender is a construct, she tells him). There’s sweet Jeanine (Catherine Curtain), who puts Finn and Cecily up the inn she manages between laments about her missing husband. There’s the screeching crafter (Michaela Watkins) hoping to open her new store with her handsy husband (Michael Chernus). There’s the foul-mouthed mechanics (George Basil and Sarah Burns) and the wealthy gay couple (Cheyenne Jackson and What We Do In The Shadows’ Harvey Guillén). Finally, there’s the reclusive hunter who warns trespassers will be shot. Each of them has different reasons to call the serene Beaverfield home, something that becomes increasingly apparent when a gas pipeline is proposed. To some, pipeline development is a chance at fast money and growing industry in their sleepy town. To others, it’d spoil the peaceful place they’d value as an escape. With the need for a unanimous decision and big money on the table, the tension between the residents is bubbling well beyond a simmer. Before Finn even has the chance to unpack into the already tense town, there’s a snowstorm and a nighttime attack. (Let’s just say, this one won’t get a green check on “doesthedogdie.com”). The roads are “effed.” The power generators are destroyed, and the whole town finds themselves stranded at the inn. While investigating the damage, Finn finds Jeanine’s missing husband—or at least his corpse—and the group is launched into a frightening whodunnit that comes with suspicions of a lycanthrope.
The story is based on a videogame of the same name and was written for screen by Mishna Wolff (Wolff! J’Accuse!). It’s her first feature and a triumph for how well her work plays with Ruben’s direction and the line delivery of the core cast. Ruben first feature, Scare Me, hwas a standout horror-comedy. Like his previous film, this one maroons some acquaintances to a woodsy space covered in snow and darkness, and grabs laughs and scares from escalating paranoia and the comedic timing of its stars. Whatever Wolff and Ruben are serving, Richardson and Vayntrub are eating up. So much relies on their chemistry, and it’s an exercise in restraint to know when to cut their moments off. Each actor is operating at the top of their comedy game, making for a stuffed ensemble reminiscent of Krampus.
Ruben is quickly forging a signature style, the whole movie drenched in black and red looking like it’s lit by fireplaces and candlelight. His ability to build a “vibe” remains with things like characters being shot at a bird’s eye view from atop a staircase. That shot is both menacing and funny as it feels like a Norman Bates(Psycho) POV watching a character trip upwards while carrying heavy bags. Each shot works well with Anna Drubich’s haunting and jovial score to denote its balanced tone.
That combination creates enough scares to leave this firmly in the horror lexicon, with swelling roars and wince-inducing scrapes. There’s a distinct lack of gore and the sound and mood-setting are more the foundation of what will keep viewers up at night. Lips are sealed as to whether there is, in fact, a werewolf terrorizing the tiny town, but I’d guess this title will make rounds when discussions of transformation scenes are had by genre nerds.
The movie has a lot of fun with its themes about the pipeline and the environment. Yes, it’s a hilarious murder mystery, where everyone is potentially a werewolf, but there are sprinklings of a lot more. The villain might be the teeth-baring humanoid, but the drama is set ablaze by a greedy capitalist pitting blue-collar gun owners against each other and fueling their distrusts.
Werewolves Within comes together like the cup of hot chocolate you’d want to be sipping by the in-world fire. It’s cozy. That’s what Ruben does; he creates horror spaces that feel welcoming, beckoning you into them with a pointed claw. Along with Wolff, he’s created a thicker story that feels very “now,” born of modern themes and bolstered by modern vernacular. Drop a monster into the mix and arm the characters with jokes and firearms, and you’ve got something to howl about.
Werewolves Within made its World Premiere at Tribeca Festival 2021. A theatrical release follows on June 25.
Header Image Source: IFC Films