I think it’s safe to say that whatever ‘video game curse’ meant that any video game movie was an automatic garbage fire has been well and truly broken. There were always exceptions (I enjoy both Silent Hill and Warcraft while acknowledging that both movies are massively flawed, perhaps even fundamentally broken, on a narrative level) and I know there’s a whole host of maniacs out there ready to argue that beloved ‘vulgar auteurs’ like Paul W.S. Anderson have been putting out unsung trashterpieces all along.
But the recent run of successes indicates that the ceiling has been well and truly cracked. Detective Pikachu was pretty damn great, Sonic the Hedgehog was way better than it had any right to be, the Netflix series Arcane is one of the best pieces of media (be it movie, show, cartoon, anything) out this year. There will assuredly still be awful movies made from video games, as there are awful movies made from all source material, but it no longer seems like some impossible hurdle.
And maybe the prime example of how far we’ve come in terms of ‘the video game movie’ is Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within, available now on home video and On Demand. Inspired by the Ubisoft game of the same name, (itself inspired by the classic party game Werewolf [or Mafia, or Secret Hitler]) Werewolves Within is a cozy, snowy murder mystery that keeps the laughs and the blood running consistently from first minute to last.
I do have one quick quibble about how people talk about this movie though. I keep seeing it described as a ‘horror-comedy’ and that’s just not accurate. Werewolves Within is not a horror-comedy. It’s a comedy with murder in it. It’s no more a ‘horror’ movie than Knives Out or Fish Called Wanda or Clue. Just because (maybe) there’s a werewolf running around causing trouble, that doesn’t automatically make this a horror movie. It’s never scary, it’s never even really trying to ever be scary or upsetting, so knock the ‘horror comedy’ stuff off. It’s a comedy, a very funny comedy, with an impressive body count. End of mini-rant.
Anyway, if Werewolves Within is styled as a classical whodunnit, that makes Sam Richardson’s amiable doofus Finn Wheeler our Poirot. As the film starts, Finn, a forest ranger, arrives in the tiny town of Beaverfield, a community sharply divided by a proposed oil pipeline that would destroy the area but make some people very, very rich.
That would be tension enough, but soon a massive storm knocks out the roads in and out of town. And then Finn discovers someone (something?) has shredded the generators and knocked down the powerlines, causing a blackout. And then Finn discovers that something (someone?) tore apart a local and stuffed his body under the porch of the local hotel.
All these tensions collide in one place for the movie’s central set-piece, a long, dark night with our ensemble crammed together into the town’s hotel trying to figure out who among them cannot be trusted. The new, potentially supernatural, adversary serves as a trigger for grudges old and fresh, with only Finn’s relentless positivity keeping a lid on things as the night gets darker and colder.
Ruben has assembled a fun ensemble of victims/suspects here, including Milana Vayntrub as Cecily, a bubbly postal worker, Wayne Duvall as Sam Parker, the businessman pushing for the pipeline project, Catherine Curtin as Jeanine, the owner of the hotel where much of the action takes place, Michaela Watkins and Michael Chernus as Trisha and Pete Anderton, locals who are eager to sell out, George Basil and Sarah Burns as Marcus and Gwen, scumbag townies, Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén (so great as Guillermo on What We Do In the Shadows) as Devon and Joaquim, a wealthy couple blocking the pipeline’s construction, Rebecca Henderson as Dr. Ellis, a withdrawn scientist, and Glenn Fleshler, the Yellow King himself, as Emerson Flint, an antisocial trapper.
Everyone here is going as broad as possible, with Watkins, Basil, and Burns in particular pitching their characterizations to sketch comedy levels of over-the-top. I can see that being a turnoff for a number of viewers, but it fits with the extremely theatrical tenor that Ruben is striking with how he composes and cuts images. This material can’t help but be somewhat stagey, and rather than run from that Ruben embraces the absurdist bent afforded to him by going as mannered and stylized as he can.
(I should note that this is a continuation/expansion of the approach Ruben took in his last movie, Scare Me. I know that movie has its fans, but it was aggressively Not My Tempo and I turned it off about midway through. Werewolves Within improves on that movie by opening things up enough so that its theatricality doesn’t feel quite so suffocating, and has the benefit of a larger ensemble and more actual action, it’s not just two relentlessly annoying people yapping at each other.)
For as uniformly dialed-in as the whole ensemble is, the movie ultimately belongs to Richardson, also credited as a producer here. He’s playing off the same comic persona he refined on Veep, only here his golly-gee sincerity is being played off literal monsters rather than political ones. In a just world, Richardson would be headlining at least a few comedies a year. He’s comic timing and delivery is flawless, he’s as inherently charming a screen presence as you could ever want from a lead, and when his slow boil finally pops in Within’s home stretch, it’s more satisfying than any big glorious special effect that money could buy.
Like many a murder mystery, Werewolves Within gets a little wobbly in that last stretch, piling up narrative convolutions alongside dead bodies. It gets difficult to track who knew what when and why they then did whatever was done.
Still, the final-final answer to the mystery is a good one and retroactively makes many of the choices made by screenwriter Mishna Wolff (heh) hang together much more cohesively. Suffice to say, the movie knows what complaints you’re gonna lob at it after the first twenty minutes, and those complaints are built into Within’s own resolution.
Werewolves Within will fit snug on your shelf with your other favorite murder mysteries, and with its snow-covered settings and bundled up cast, it has a specific Christmas-y/winter-y sort of glow that just might earn it a spot in an annual seasonal rotation. I had a perfectly marvelous time getting cozy under some blankets and watching some fools get murdered while some other fools tried to figure out who did it, and you should treat yourself to the same good time this holiday season.