Step inside a horror version of “Clue” — now c’mon that sounds fun, doesn’t it? — as a group of eccentric strangers take refuge inside a small town lodge from a possible lycanthrope in Josh Ruben’s sophomore film “Werewolves Within” based on the Ubisoft VR Game. Sam Richardson (HBO’s “Veep”) and Milana Vayntrub (Kevin Hart’s “Die Hart”) lead this entertaining cast whose characters begin to suspect one another as the body count rises. A spot of blood, a dab of gore, and a flood of laughs make for a howling good time.
Howard Marren’s playful 1959 recording “The Phantom Strikes Again” opens the film in a snow-covered wooded area where we meet victim #1 just before he becomes a midnight snack. The mood quickly becomes horrifying as an unseen predator thrashes the victim back and forth in the snow offering a moment of brief respite before the body disappears off-camera in an homage to Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Later in the film in what feels like another reference to the 1975 classic, a pooch on a retractable dog collar becomes a substitute for a holiday roast on a steel chain.
As a kid, Ruben often pretended he was Chief Brody chasing down imaginary monsters through the woods in the same area where he shot “Werewolves.” So, making this follow-up to the well-received Sundance debut “Scare Me” must have felt a bit like destiny. There are references to other films including “John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the Coen brothers “Fargo,” and Sydney Pollack’s “Jeremiah Johnson.”
Set in the small town of Beaverfield where a proposed pipeline is dividing the residents, Finn Wheeler (Richardson) just arrived to begin his new assignment. It doesn’t take long for the forest ranger to get acquainted with the townsfolk thanks to bubbly postal carrier Cecily (Vayntrub), the first person he meets while checking in at the cozy lodge owned by the hospitable Jeanine Sherman (Catherine Curtin) whose husband Dave (Patrick M. Walsh) has gone missing. Still, she remains in high spirits.
Cecily becomes Finn’s tour guide as he tags along on her mail route meeting the eccentric residents including pooch-toting Trisha Anderton (the wonderful Michaela Watkins who has this whole Andie MacDowell vibe going for her) and local hermit Emerson (Glenn Fleshler) who lives in an isolated cabin. Resembling Hagrid from “Harry Potter,” Emerson welcomes strangers by letting them stare down the barrel of his shotgun while warning them to get off his property which is probably why Cecily lets Finn deliver his mail.
The two finish the mail route and get in some R&R by stopping by The Axe Den for a couple of drinks, a game of friendly axe-throwing, and 90’s throwbacks including “The Sign” by Ace of Base (a guilty pleasure). For a minute it seems like Finn and Cecily are headed into romantic territory but duty calls and soon the forest ranger is tracking down the source of the town’s blackout — all the generators have been mangled — and there’s a dead body under Mrs Sherman’s inn. Rumblings of a werewolf fill the air as the townsfolk isolate together but soon begin to suspect each other as the possible lycanthrope.
“Werewolves Within” is loads of fun. It’s a hairy version of “What We Do in the Shadows” as Ruben amps up the comedy. Still, there are quite a few chilling moments heightened by Anna Drubich’s thrilling score (“Stormf*cked” being one of my favorite tracks) and there’s enough blood and gore to satisfy horror fans.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters. Available VOD on July 2
In Fort Worth, the film is playing at The Grand Berry Theater. In Dallas at Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas Victory Park and Studio Movie Grille Northwest Highway