The whodunnit traditionally pitches a motley crew of eccentric folk into a claustrophobic setting with the looming threat that a killer is among them. Sparks will fly. Skeletons (literal or metaphorical) will tumble out of closets (literal or metaphorical). Then, after much mystery and mayhem, a murderer will be unmasked. This classic narrative gets an enticing new bite by making that murderer a ravenous beast of legend in the playful horror-comedy Werewolves Within.
Based on the video game of the same name, Werewolves Within is set in the small, remote woodlands community of Beaverfield, where everyone is on edge following a string of violent events. Residents were already divided over a proposed pipeline, which promised to bring industry and more people to the picturesque winter town. Resentments fast mutate into suspicion once the power goes out, a beloved dog goes missing, and a human corpse is found. With a blizzard making the only road out unpassable, all are trapped together in a cozy bed-and-breakfast turned death trap. And it’s up to one man to make sense of the chaos… which might include a werewolf running wild.
Typically, this would be a cool but quirky detective – a Hercule Poirot, Phryne Fisher, or Benoit Blanc. Here, it’s a hapless park ranger, new to town and sugary sweet in disposition. Sam Richardson (Veep) stars as Finn, who listens to self-help tapes about confidence, can’t take the hint that his girlfriend has dumped him, and waxes rhapsodically about snow shows. Essentially, the screenplay by Mishna Wolff paints him as the “Beta Male,” dreaded by conservative talk show hosts for his presumed inability to lead or save the day. How can this Beta possibly defeat an Alpha Wolf? Possibly with a little help from his friends.
Josh Ruben, who made a splash with his hilarious horror-comedy Scare Me, directs Werewolves Within, tapping into his established history in comedy and television to secure an exciting ensemble of character actors. Michael Chernus and Catherine Curtin of Orange Is the New Black pop up as a handsy neighbor and a chipper bed-and-breakfast owner. Funny or Die’s Sarah Burns and Crashing’s George Basil play a pair of crass mechanics. 30 Rock’s Cheyenne Jackson teams with What We Do In The Shadows’ Harvey Guillén to portray a posh and pretentious gay couple. Trophy Wife’s Michaela Watkins burns with hysterical rage as the resident busybody, whose long list of demands includes an unadulterated adoration of her cringe-worthy craft projects. (Angels made from toilet paper rolls. Oh my!) All of the above bring untamed energy and a goofy gameness to scenes of socially awkward humor or caterwauling in horror. Then, there’s Milana Vayntrub, who brings a smirking sex appeal as Cecily, the local mail delivery person who aids Finn in his investigation.
Each skilled in making the most of a moment or any chance to snatch at the spotlight, this cast hums with potential in the jaunty first act of setup and wackiness. Unfortunately, Wolff’s script lets them down. There’s just not enough terrain to keep things interesting. The characters are so thinly sketched that even writing the descriptors above was a challenge. Stock characters in whodunnits are part of the game, bringing fun with audience anticipations and surprising subversions. But Wolff doesn’t nail the characterizations, so it’s hard to have expectations. Perhaps this is why the cast turns their characters into a collection of crude gestures, snarling tones, and cartoonish mugging. They don’t feel like people, so the stakes of life or death don’t stick.
Ruben has more success with Richardson and Vayntrub, as an early hangout scene at a shuddered bar allows the pair to create a fuller picture of Finn and Cecily along with the spark of a could-be romance. In a town of misfits and misanthropes, these two click. The chemistry crackles like this is a rom-com from the mid-‘90s, and it’s a juicy thrill to enjoy. Richardson exudes warmth and a sharp comedic timing, while Vayntrub brings a Garofalo-style combativeness, an intoxicating mix of cynicism and pluck. It’s a shame the script lets them down.
Crucial clues are dropped way too soon, while potential red herrings barely have a chance to sink in before they’re killed (and thereby cut from the list of suspects.) If you suspect you’ve got this game figured out early, you probably have – which means the fun of the mystery is spoiled, leaving the comedy and scares to satisfy. The comedy works in spurts, propelled by the bombastic spins of this collection of charismatic character actors. The scares are non-existent. There’s mood and shadows, sure, but Ruben develops little dread. Kills are often kept offscreen, which keeps the tone light. Without the tension that serious scares can bring, the climax is robbed of any sense of suspense. Still, delivering some long-awaited werewolf spectacle in a playful—although—clunky final battle, it is entertaining, and worth the wait.
For the first half of Werewolves Within, Ruben is in his comfort zone. He retreads the setting of his directorial debut with its remote cabin and collisions of darkly funny strangers on a cold, spooky night. However, his sophomore effort lacks the sharpness of the Scare Me script, which he wrote. With more characters who too-soon spill out of the cabin (or spacious winter B&B), Ruben can’t wrangle the storytelling, jokes, and scares as successfully. The second half meanders from locations and characters, bleeding tension along the way and losing a grip on what might have made this awesome. What could be a stellar showcase—for Ruben and his cast—instead feels like an improv show on an off night. Essentially, Werewolves Within is fun without ever rising to frightening or frightfully funny.
“Werewolves Within” is in theaters Friday and available on demand on July 2.