Werewolves Within

Werewolves Within is a throwback to the werewolf-comedy movies of the Eighties, where classics like The Howling and An American Werewolf in London unabashedly combined macabre humor and gruesome killings.  Based on a video game, Werewolves Within is actually a mashup of two genres: werewolf-movies and murder mysteries, with some romance thrown in for added seasoning.  I enjoyed the horror-comedy and the quirky romance between the leads, but found the mystery uninteresting and unnecessary.  Overall, the movie is a solid B-movie.  Recommend for the parts that work and gratuitous use of Ace of Bass.

Deciding to see Werewolves Within was partly based on having not seen any of the previous Fast and Furious movies.  I haven’t been interested in any crazy car race movies since The Cannonball Run in 1981.  (Why hasn’t that movie been remade yet?)  I did see (and liked) Hobbs and Shaw, but that movie didn’t require seeing any of the preceding F+F movies.  The trailer for Werewolves Within intrigued me, selling the movie as a horror/comedy hybrid.  With  limited movie-going options, I decided to give Werewolves Within a try.

Werewolves Within (or WW) is a mashup of several genres: werewolf movie, murder mystery and buddy comedy.  As a werewolf movie, it fits alongside similarly minded classics like The Howling (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (also 1981), where gore and violent deaths are offset by tongue-in-cheek comedy.  WW also includes a murder mystery, where our heroes try to discover who among them is the werewolf before everyone is killed, either by said werewolf or by each others hands.  For simplicity, think An American Werewolf in London meets Knives Out, and you’ll understand where WW is coming from.

The hero in WW is Finn Wheeler (Sam Richardson), a forest ranger assigned to the small town of Beaverton.  The town has about a dozen residents, and they are split over whether to allow a pipeline to be built underground.  That the residents are all manner of quirk goes without saying, and I’ll get to them later.

When Finn first appeared onscreen, I couldn’t help but think, an African American forest ranger?  Certainly they do exist, and kudos to the movie’s producers for making a color-blind casting choice for the lead character.  As Finn, Sam Richardson’s performance answers the question of how Urkel would have turned out as an adult.  Finn is a nerd, but not just any nerd: he’s a nature nerd.  Early on he confesses to having read Waldon and saying how much it changed him, and expresses a keen interest in snow shoes.  Finn is also p-whipped, attempting to maintain what he thinks is a long-distance relationship over the phone.  The relationship is pretty much over, but what nerd hasn’t been in Finn’s snowshoes before?  (I‘m speaking from experience here.)

Finn is also quite naive, surprised when the cute girl in town makes a play for him but not suspicious at all.  The girl putting the moves on Finn is Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), the postal carrier in Beaverfield.  She got the route when the town’s previous postal carrier left town under mysterious circumstances.  Cecily takes it upon herself to welcome Finn to town, and invites him over to the hotel.  Since Cecily had no place to stay when she arrived, she worked out an arrangement with the hotel’s proprietor where she can stay for free as long as she helps prepare meals.

Cecily takes a liking to Finn, teaching him how to flip an axe.  In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Cecily playfully attempts to seduce Finn while grooving to “The Sign” from Ace of Bass.  I’d completely forgotten about that song and that band until now, but from here on out, I’ll immediately think of Cecily dancing to its cheesy rhythm whenever I hear it again.

WW is at its best when it focuses on Finn and Cecily.  Richardson and Vayntrub have good chemistry with each other and their dialog has a playful edge to it.  The movie would have worked better if it focused on the two of them, developing their quirky relationship and exploring the werewolf angle, instead of introducing the supporting cast and the mystery plot.  But WW really wants to be a murder mystery, and I have to relent and discuss the movie as it is, not as it should be.

Its not that the murder mystery plot in WW doesn’t work, its just that it takes most of the focus off of the movie’s two most interesting characters to instead devote time to another dozen that are, for the most part, thinly written, screechy and annoying.  There’s:

  • Trisha and Pete: the town artsy-craftsy types (and their dog Cha-Chi)
  • Marcus and Gwen, the town rednecks
  • Jeanie, the hotel proprietor
  • Sam Parker, the representative for the oil pipeline
  • Emerson, the possibly homicidal backwoods human grizzly bear
  • Joaquim and Devon, a rich gay couple
  • Dr. Ellis, the environmentalist 

Sam Parker is in Beaverfield attempting to convince the town’s residents to agree to have an oil pipeline placed under the town.  Unless all of them approve, the pipeline won’t be built.  The residents are divided on the project, and I think only Marcus and Gwen approve of it.  Complicating Sam’s mission is Dr. Ellis, taking up residence in Jeanie’s hotel until her environmental impact study is complete.  Jeanie is against the pipeline, but her husband Dave was for the project, before he ran off.

At nightfall, Trisha’s dog disappears, and all of the town’s generators go down.  Finn investigates and finds that the generators have been slashed by what looks like large claws.  He also finds Dave’s gnarled corpse underneath Jeanie’s hotel. Dr. Ellis uses her high tech equipment to somehow conclude that the hairs left behind on Cha-Chi’s leash and Dave’s body are neither human or known animal.  She tells the townspeople that she believes that the animal behind the carnage is a lycanthrope, or werewolf.  When Sam breaks into her room to confront her about her findings, she shoots herself.

Dr. Ellis is a curious character, figuratively and literally.  She dresses like a man, and has an androgynous look to her.  If this movie had been made five years ago, I would have guessed that she was gay.  In today’s world, I’d say that she is either gender non-binary or even transgender.  I’m all for representation in movies, I just wish her character had some interesting dialog.  As it stands, her death is very circumspect, but lacks any impact because we know nothing about the character to make us care about her demise.  It’s a miss on behalf of the movie, and shows the dangers of having too many characters and not enough time to flesh them out.  (The movie is a breezy ninety minutes.)

The group initially decides to stay at Jeanie’s hotel for the night, because there’s safety in numbers.  However, when Pete is attacked, they believe that one of their neighbors is the  werewolf and go back to their respective homes.  Finn reasons that their best bet of surviving is to ask Emerson to help them kill the werewolf, and he takes Cecily with him for moral support.

Finn and Emerson’s scenes together are easily my runner-up favorites in the movie.  Fleshler plays Emerson as menacing but not over-the-top, letting his appearance and physical presence do the talking.  I wish the other characters had taken Fleshler’s lead, and tried for some subtlety over yelling and screaming.  The script doesn’t overplay  where two characters who couldn’t be more different get to play off each other.  Finn hilariously tries to convince Emerson to be a good neighbor, like Mr. Rogers.  To which Emerson responds, “Who?”

When Finn and Cecily come back to town, the townspeople are killing each other off.  The fear of being killed by a werewolf coupled by their mutual hatred and suspicion of each other, has given way to wanton violence.  I was actually happy when Trisha (Michaela Watkins) was killed, I had gotten tired of her saying “Cha-Chi” over and over again.  At first, I mistakenly thought Trisha was being played by a slumming Mimi Rogers.  (My apologies, Mimi!)  Joaquim (Harvey Guillén) has some funny lines amid the final act’s melee, proving that even slightly funny dialog always sounds funnier when spoken by a snarky gay character.  The rest of the supporting cast didn’t make a positive impression, so I wasn’t upset when they died.

If you haven’t guessed, the WW’s title is a metaphor for how prejudice, combined with fear,  unleashes the violent tendencies just under the surface of “normal people”.  The movie’s underlying conflict pits environmentalists against industrial developers, and while it serves as the basis of the tension among the townies, the movie doesn’t spend any time discussing the pros and cons of either side.  Given that there is a werewolf that is killing people, the whole pipeline plot device could easily have been left out of the plot, and the movie would have worked the same.

If you’re familiar with Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, you may guess who the werewolf was long before I did.  I confess, I was more interested in the annoying characters being killed off than I was about the movie’s central mystery.  I won’t reveal who the werewolf is, since I don’t want to spoil the surprise for whomever is reading this review.  WW concludes on an abrupt note that sets up a possible sequel.  If the movie has the same actors return, I’d be willing to see a follow-up.

Going into WW, I was unfamiliar with the video game it was based on.  I enjoyed the movie on its own terms, some parts more than others.  I suspect that the movie’s Clue aspirations are derived from the source video game, and I can see that plot working better in that format.  A ninety-minute movie barely has enough time to be one good movie, let alone two.  

WW is a movie with modest ambitions, and I found it to be moderately entertaining.  The movie will probably find success on VOD and then basic cable, where I can see it running endlessly on a channel like SyFy.  If you have the opportunity to watch WW, I believe you’ll enjoy it for what it is: a werewolf movie that tweaks the genre just enough to be different, with several performances that are interesting bordering on endearing.

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