Review: “Werewolves Within” is the best video game film of all time

Werewolves inside is a comedic horror film adapted from a video game based on the board game Werewolf (which is another version of Mafia). Based on this description, Werewolves inside strength sounding like an MC Escher maze of Hollywood unoriginality, the result of a studio bending over backwards to allow the last property standing. But it’s a more picturesque affair: low-budget, high-concept, and run by the small, venerable IFC Films, Werewolves inside is the rare video game film to aim for quality rather than marketability. Or maybe the first video game movie to strive for quality, whatever it is. It is not a high caliber kind.

The film opens with a disturbing presentation of a quote from Mr. Rogers about listening to your neighbors, which if you’ve ever played Werewolf comes across as the perfect one. introduction. It’s a game of deception: a group of players are assigned secret roles, one or more of which will be werewolves, then the moderator asks everyone to close their eyes. During the “night,” each role is awakened one by one to perform a unique task, whether that is checking another player’s role, finding out if anyone is sharing your role, or swapping the roles of two unwitting players. Once everyone is done, they open their eyes and engage in a debate about who the werewolf is and who isn’t, trying to piece together the events of the night and figure out who is who. This is when the lie begins. You might lie about your role by appearing to be serious, or attract undue attention to see who is most relieved to have lost the limelight, or realize halfway that you have become the werewolf in at night and being forced to rearrange your story in real time. At the end of the debate, the group votes on who to execute, and the team that does not face the death penalty wins. Only then are the roles revealed, revealing who cheated or sold you. That’s where the twist lies: Werewolves aren’t the real danger. Listening to your neighbor is.

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Werewolves inside understands that, but he still has room for a dangerous werewolf. He kills someone in the opening scene. The victim is a resident of Beaverfield, a small Fargo-esque town full of snow and strange characters. His latest arrival is Finn (Sam Richardson), a ranger who hadn’t planned on having to solve unusual murders, but here he is. As events in the city become more and more inexplicable, Finn enlists the help of Postal Worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) to round up the residents at the local hostel and unravel what is going on. This is proving difficult, especially as the population is divided over an impending vote on whether to build a pipeline through Beaverfield. An environmentalist and a pipeline advocate are visiting the city to attack them too.

The film does not play shyly on its small budget. Generally, Werewolves inside is extremely nimble at navigating a supernatural story without a chasm for special effects. But a small budget does not excuse the amateur technical choices, which are numerous. Sound editing is overzealous, first: a powerful iMovie-level sound effect plays for every “Fright leap” (in quotes because they are meant to entertain, not to frighten), which changes from boring to comically overused and then becomes boring again. And the dialogues are sometimes hard to hear, as if the microphones were too far from the actors. There are a handful of crash zoom edits to keep the pace going, à la Edgar Wright, but they lack the precision and timing to match the verve of the footage they mimic. The film does not collapse from a technical point of view, the editor knows exactly when to cut after a murderous punchline, but it’s visibly unpolished.

The overall distribution is more consistent. Werewolves inside is packed with comedic talent, many of which haven’t had the chance to shine like this yet. They’re all set for the playful dark comedy tone director Josh Ruben craves, but there are a few highlights: Rebecca Henderson gives the environmentalist some hilarious facial contortions; George Basil slips off as a mentally compromised boyfriend; and Milana Vayntrub’s performance, which sits on the very human border between talkative and distant, should make her a star. The only weak spot in the set is a gay couple played by Harvey Guillén and Cheyenne Jackson, but that’s the script’s fault. They’re written too stereotypically, as if they were gay best friends in mid-2000s comedies before they ended up in Beaverfield.

The third act is also the script’s fault. The first two acts are often clever and funny, and they set up a great plan for the duplicity of its otherwise straightforward residents. So when the ensemble reunites for their debate on “who is the werewolf” in 55 minutes, the expectations couldn’t be higher. But then Werewolves inside kind of gives up. Instead of escalating into the mental maze of psychological torture the game transforms into, the film scatters into the forest, where they begin to play against each other in crazy but character-specific ways. The idea that your neighbors are the real danger is still intact, but the mystery is all but cleared. Nobody’s descent into insanity doesn’t indicate he might be the werewolf – it only shows that under pressure, they’re not the good people they claimed to be. There’s even a monologue to explain this idea in case you didn’t get it. This core theme survives to the end, but not the tense thriller. Werewolves inside gets less intense as the film progresses, as screenwriter Mishna Wolff (hey!) doesn’t even try to maintain the thrill of seeing the false identities of the past and carefully constructed lies.

Nobody said the movie possesses echoing the game like that, but it would have been better if it did. Still, the bar for video game movies is low, and the effort behind Werewolves inside hands down the title of best video game film ever made. And surprisingly for the genre, it also sports a subversive feminist streak, which is sure to anger some of the target audience. You know what they say: if the players are crazy, it’s probably good.

★★★ (3/5)

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