NOTE: “Werewolves Within” was primarily released straight to VOD platforms in North America, though it did offer a brief theatrical release in some U.S. theatres. While this particular movie is primarily distributed via VOD, we generally recommend watching movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic regardless, if you’re not fully vaccinated, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing pandemic without a full vaccination however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.

DISCLAIMER: This review is based on a free at-home screener of, “Werewolves Within”, provided by distributor, IFC Films.

 

The race to perfecting the formula for good video game-to-movie adaptations appears to officially be on! That much is unsurprising, as the video game industry has evolved into a legitimately mature, diverse and emotionally evocative art form in the modern age. What is surprising however is some of the video game movies that have surprisingly managed to work pretty well. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu shocked everyone (pun not intended) in 2019 by being a legitimately well-realized and funny live-action romp, one that was nonetheless based on one of the most obscure and bizarre Pokemon video games ever released. Not long after that, Sonic the Hedgehog premiered in theatres in early 2020, a movie adaptation of an extremely beloved Sega video game icon that initially earned scorn and fury from the franchise’s devout fanbase, only to reinvent itself with a more redesigned, game-accurate Sonic that would eventually headline a genuinely exciting, unpredictable Hollywood blockbuster, complete with a sequel on the way next year.

Pokemon and Sonic the Hedgehog also have the advantage of being among the most recognized and beloved video game brands in the world though, something that may have helped them achieve at least some of their positive reception and box office earnings. That’s not exactly the case with Werewolves Within, a horror-comedy movie based on a rather obscure virtual reality party game, released by Ubisoft in 2016. Werewolves Within has virtually nothing to do with its source material, didn’t even release theatrically in most of the world, and is only the second movie to come from Ubisoft Film & Television, whose only previous work was 2016’s much-maligned live-action Assassin’s Creed movie. That’s not really a great foundation for a video game movie, which often struggle to come together at the best of times, even as they’ve begun to noticeably improve in the present day.

But, much like its crafty lycanthrope, lurking in the midst of a bunch of frightened townsfolk, Werewolves Within is not what it seems. This movie should have been dead-on-arrival, especially with everything working against it! The very notion that Ubisoft would greenlight a Werewolves Within movie in the first place feels downright baffling in fact, especially as the publisher still struggles to adapt higher-profile video game properties under their portfolio, like Watch Dogs, The Division and Just Dance, to name a few. Somehow though, Werewolves Within is not only a genuinely good movie, but it comes right out of nowhere to serve as an easy contender for one of 2021’s best dark horse hits for film!

It shouldn’t be possible, but apparently it is. Werewolves Within is tightly-paced, surprisingly engaging, and downright hilarious. It has very little to do with its source game, but in this case, that actually works in this movie’s favour. By breaking away from the medieval backdrop of the VR game it’s based on, Werewolves Within can fully embrace comical horror tropes that also manage to thrive as exaggerated psychological satire. Sure, there are still a few instances where this movie is just plain dumb, plus the overall mystery behind its threat isn’t as clever as the movie thinks it is. Ultimately though, these are very minor quibbles with what is, unexpectedly, one of the best video game movies ever released to date! Even if you’re not familiar with the source game, or you don’t care much for video games in general, Werewolves Within legitimately works as a standout horror-comedy on its own merits, and if you do happen to be capable of embracing the charm behind Werewolves Within’s loose video game inspiration, even better!

CHARACTERS

Werewolves Within stars an ensemble cast of character actors, headlined by Sam Richardson as newly-transferred forest ranger, Finn Wheeler. After being assigned to the tiny town of Beaverfield, New Hampshire, due to some unspecified work mishap, Wheeler is placed under the direction of social justice-championing mail carrier, Cecily Moore, played by Milana Vayntrub, best known as the voice of Squirrel Girl in various modern Marvel cartoons. Cecily thus takes it upon herself to introduce Wheeler to Beaverfield’s increasingly weird citizens, something that he naturally has mixed feelings about, while desperately trying to reconnect with his obviously-not-interested ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, whom you only ever hear over a smartphone.

Some of the character archetypes in Werewolves Within are a little predictable to a fault, but to the movie’s credit, many of them also aren’t at all! In fact, Werewolves Within is surprisingly skilled at exploiting its satire of horror tropes in such a way that it effortlessly plays with audience expectations. Its jump scares are particularly good at this, with the movie often falsely teasing a jump scare that turns out to be benign, or featuring a quiet scene that appears to be laid back, only to then immediately surprise audiences with a joke that’s accompanied by a sharp sting. Amazingly, despite the fact that Werewolves Within does this more than once as well, its characters constantly make these kinds of faux-scares work, much better than they have any right to!

I don’t want to go too much into the population of Beaverfield, and how they become tangled in the werewolf hunt that serves as the foundation of Werewolves Within’s plot, but I will say that these characters are all astonishingly funny in their own ways. The citizens of Beaverfield naturally clash with Wheeler and his mild-mannered persona, while also bickering with and distrusting each other due to various separate political allegiances, personality types and fear thresholds. It’s a well-calculated cyclone of human deception and mistrust, and it naturally unfurls into an absolute disaster of destructive tendencies. On that note, one of the best and most reliable jokes in Werewolves Within is the fact that Beaverfield’s citizens cause much more mayhem and ruin through their own over-the-top hysteria than the perceived werewolf threat actually does, which only makes the end result of each character storyline even funnier and more memorable.

PLOT

Werewolves Within has a very simple story hook behind it; A handful of highly eccentric small town folks of varying backgrounds and dispositions are snowed into a small hotel together, and one of them is suspected to be a werewolf that’s primed to kill everyone else. This horror hook has of course been done before, most famously in 1982’s The Thing, but Werewolves Within obviously puts a more comedy-oriented spin on the idea. This is also the closest that this movie comes to tying in with its source game, which also involves a bunch of nervous, superstitious villagers trying to deduce a werewolf hiding in their midst, though as I mentioned, the original video game takes place in the medieval era, while this movie adaptation takes place in the present day.

Refreshingly though, Werewolves Within doesn’t get impatient with its amusing main hook. It takes the necessary time to build up its storytelling, carefully introducing audiences to the various townsfolk of fictional burg, Beaverfield, with Sam Richardson’s forest ranger, Finn Wheeler serving as the audience surrogate. This creates a superb ‘domino effect’ of small town superstition that keeps building more and more comedic momentum, until the ultimate perpetrator is finally revealed. This is perhaps why Werewolves Within’s trailers appeared so deceptively weak and unfunny; A lot of the humour behind Werewolves Within comes from this careful buildup and progression, with the movie only getting funnier as it keeps building on the established neuroses, grudges and superstitions shared between Beaverfield’s highly eccentric populace.

Most astonishingly of all is well is that Werewolves Within even manages to feature some surprisingly great themes amid its otherwise lovably stupid jokes. The town being initially divided over the building of an oil pipeline, with one of the trapped characters being the mastermind behind said pipeline, is actually a small stroke of genius, drawing upon a timely environmental issue to satirize political tension as a means of digging into what makes each Beaverfield character tick, while also making all of them a believable suspect. Even beyond that, this movie also uses its werewolf hunt to deliver a simple, yet surprisingly overlooked message that modern Hollywood almost never shares in earnest anymore; It’s not a bad thing to be a nice person, and someone isn’t wrong for wanting to see the best in people, even when we don’t immediately understand them. It’s such a simple idea, but it resonates in the hyper-divided times we currently live in, while also tying in very well with this movie’s (and its source game’s) overall concept.

Of course, the ultimate realization of this central theme would have worked better if Werewolves Within didn’t just barely run out of gas right at the finish line. Unfortunately, the identity of its true threat is a little predictable, and once they’ve been unmasked, the movie doesn’t have much left to work with. It still manages a few final laughs, but by the time the climactic confrontation rolls around, its concept is exhausted. Fortunately, Werewolves Within also doesn’t overstay its welcome, stopping at just under 100 minutes’ length, and not wasting a ton of time on a climax that frankly feels more like an action-oriented epilogue than a truly epic battle.

DIRECTION

Werewolves Within is directed by Josh Ruben. Yes, that Josh Ruben, from Collegehumor. Again, I don’t get it. Ruben directs Werewolves Within like a ludicrous, feature-length comedy sketch, and yet he seems to have almost accidentally made a legitimately standout video game movie. Perhaps a big part of this is Ruben mimicking something that seemed to work pretty well for Pokemon: Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog; He’s not treating Werewolves Within like a super pious, self-serious adaptation that’s desperately trying to convince its audience that it’s cool and edgy. Werewolves Within actually goes in the complete opposite direction on that note, being very proudly dorky throughout, and not really caring whether anyone is offended by its proud desire to be absurd.

This may be a surprising advantage behind Ruben helming a movie based on a video game that many people aren’t familiar with. Unlike major, triple-A video game brands that have received high-profile Hollywood adaptations before now, from the aforementioned Pokemon and Sonic the Hedgehog, to Mortal Kombat, to Street Fighter, to Resident Evil, to Silent Hill, to Tomb Raider, to Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed, Werewolves Within doesn’t have a devout, demanding fanbase with particular demands for an adaptation. Thus, Ruben can more comfortably have free reign over his ideas, utilizing some of the core premise behind Werewolves Within, and not really being fussed with following the game beyond that.

It’s also evident that Ruben’s cast and crew are having a blast making Werewolves Within, and as is common on particularly fun movie sets, that engagement and energy in this movie’s final product proves to be infectious for the audience. It’s very silly, but if you’re in the mood for a goofy, exaggerated horror-themed escapade, Werewolves Within goes all in on humour, and even manages to pack in some surprisingly effective, albeit comedy-based jump scares. Ruben clearly has a love of both sending up and celebrating horror/mystery cliches, so even when Werewolves Within gets a bit predictable, it still manages to be hugely entertaining. A lot of this is also due to the quick pace of the jokes, which maximize Werewolves Within’s lean 97-minute runtime, thus ensuring that the audience never goes too long without a laugh.

Admittedly, Ruben is treating Werewolves Within as a high concept comedy much more so than a horror movie, with its horror elements almost entirely being played for laughs in the end. As long as you understand that you’re not going to get legitimate frights out of Werewolves Within however (at least not beyond those surprisingly entertaining jump scares), it’s a great time. Ruben knows what this movie should be, and he never loses focus on its over-the-top social satire, something that often keeps audiences on their toes as much as it makes them laugh.

THE VERDICT

Werewolves Within is the kind of movie that actively invites low expectations, and then triumphantly sucker punches you with one of the best examples yet of how to do a video game movie right. Seriously, the unimpressive trailers don’t do this movie justice, so don’t go by their example! It may only loosely adapt its source game, but Werewolves Within still manages to deftly walk the line between being faithful to its source game’s core appeal, while also going in a unique direction that’s well-tailored for the medium of film. It’s clever, it’s funny, and its humble presentation hides some surprisingly sharp psychological themes and insight, even while most of its cast consists of small town caricatures that exclusively focus on bringing the laughs.

The trade-off here is that Werewolves Within isn’t all that scary, potentially disappointing those that want a better balance between comedy and horror, not to mention that its true villain is disappointingly easy to spot before long. Still, there is a perverse, yet potent joy to watching Beaverfield’s inhabitants gradually break down into madness while they’re potentially shut in with a werewolf. That easily serves as its own reward, especially considering how effectively Werewolves Within plays with viewer expectations and makes you doubt what you see and hear, even when the end of its crazy tale doesn’t feel all that shocking in hindsight.

Werewolves Within may not have been given a prestigious wide theatrical run, but it’s the best proof to date that video game movies can be legitimately great when they assemble the right creative team, even when they’re based on fairly obscure games and game franchises. Hell, Werewolves Within even serves as another modern example of a video game movie that doesn’t demand any interest or investment in video games to enjoy! It’s not going to start a franchise, and it’s not going to capture mainstream attention, but Werewolves Within does nonetheless succeed as one of the most underrated movies of 2021, a hidden gem that gamers and cinephiles alike can both agree is pretty damn entertaining.

Werewolves Within [Movie] Review
Werewolves Within is a surprisingly great horror-comedy that's funnier and more clever than it has any right to be, while also standing as one of the best video game-inspired movies made to date.
CHARACTERS85%
PLOT80%
DIRECTION90%
THE GOOD STUFF
  • Highly entertaining ensemble of eccentric personalities
  • Well-paced comedic momentum that keeps building throughout
  • Surprisingly sharp themes and commentary in the direction
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
  • The true threat is a bit obvious
  • Horror elements don't consistently keep pace with the humour
85%Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)
0%

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