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It was only a matter of time until Sam Richardson became a leading man. You may recognize the actor from TV shows like Veep, Detroiters, and I Think You Should Leave; he has an affable presence and ample charisma, but there is an edge to his acting that appears in unexpected places. Richardson is the glue that holds together Werewolves Within, a horror comedy that could easily devolve into broad shtick. Thanks to Richardson and the disciplined direction from sketch comedy veteran Josh Ruben, the high wire balance of scares and laughs continues all the way toward the final shot.
Richardson plays Finn, a park ranger who was recently transferred to Beaverfield, a sleepy New England town. There are a few things that make the town unusual: An oil tycoon (Wayne Duvall) wants to lay a pipeline through it, and its denizens can be downright bizarre. Gwen (Sarah Burns) and her husband Marcus (George Basil) are loudmouth vulgarians, for example, while Trisha (Michaela Watkins) screeches at passerby about her collection of cheap crafts. Meanwhile, a mysterious creature that possibly ate Trisha’s dog is picking off human targets. This leads to a familiar premise: Ruben and screenwriter Mishna Wolff move all the characters into a sleepy B&B, where everyone believes that a werewolf is the source of their terror. Soon, the number of accusations rival the escalating body count.
Ruben is the right fit for this material. You may have seen Scare Me, his microbudget horror comedy with a similar wintry setting. That film is a marvel of comic invention: Instead of anything supernatural, the characters use storytelling and ambience to increase the suspense. His approach here is similarly constrained. He keeps the monster’s existence and identity ambiguous for most of the film, and instead focuses on characters who are hostile, ill-mannered, and frequently hilarious. There is an agreeable mix of physical and screwball comedy. Sometimes the characters talk a mile a minute, upping the tension, and the relief comes when we see the trail of victims. It’s not funny when one character loses his hand, but it is funny how he has to remind everyone it is missing.
One surprising thing about Werewolves Within: It’s adapted from a video game. (That game had a medieval setting, which makes the adaptation a loose one.) But unlike most movies based on video games, there is no attempt to introduce gameplay mechanics into the plot. There is the sense that Wolff took the source material and made it her own unique thing. That’s for the best, since the back half of the film veers away from comedy and leans into horror, with a kind of multi-layered situational irony that necessarily escapes almost all video games. It also looks great, with a handsome dark palette that adds dread when it is necessary.
In the classic screwball tradition, Werewolves Within adds a bunch of recognizable character actors and lets them have a little fun. Watkins really leans into Trisha’s more annoying tendencies, while Harvey Guillén plays Joaquim, a mild-mannered yoga instructor with a vindictive streak. All these characters use broad culture war stereotypes to undermine each other, and it’s only Finn’s unflappable decency that keeps them civilized. Without Richardson, the Finn character could come off as a humorless scold, but his inherent likability allows the character to get away with cheesy dialogue.
Werewolves Within has a point to make, but Ruben and Wolff play their hand close to the chest. It involves Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), a postal worker who provides another voice of reason and who tries to woo Finn away from an absent ex-girlfriend. She is cute and plucky, the right mix of edgy and approachable. She is a familiar movie archetype, in other words, one that Ruben and Wolff must find boring. How they critique the character, and Finn’s relationship to her, is where the film sinks its claws into the viewer. Werewolves remain a potent metaphor for our animalistic natures, and this film explores that idea in an intriguing way, while never losing sight of its comic appeal. It is a tough balancing act, but Ruben and his eager cast pull it off.
Werewolves Within opens in theaters on June 25 and will be available on VOD platforms on July 2.