Why Werewolves Within Isn’t Your Typical Werewolf Movie
Director Josh Ruben, screenwriter Mishna Wolff on bringing Werewolves Within to life.
The small town of Beaverfield is much like many others across the nation in 2021. There is political polarization, longtime residents suspicious of newcomers, a stark wealth gap, infidelity, gossip, and at least one guy who is either a scary loner or just wants to be left the hell alone. But in the new film Werewolves Within what really sets Beaverfield apart is their lycanthrope problem.
Based loosely on the multiplayer Ubisoft VR game of the same name, the film — which is now playing in theaters and hits Digital Rental & VOD on July 2 — is a horror-comedy whodunit where a handful of locals are locked down during a winter storm while a monster hides amongst them.
Directed by Josh Ruben (Scare Me) with a script by novelist Mishna Wolff (I’m Down), Werewolves Within shares cinematic DNA with Clue and Knives Out on the mystery side, as well as The Thing and An American Werewolf in London on the horror end, with a little Fargo thrown in for good measure.
The audience enters the world of Beaverfield through the POV of plucky pushover Finn (Sam Richardson from Veep), the new forest ranger in town before introducing Cecily (Milana Vayntrub, Die Hart), a welcoming postal worker hungry for a new person to meet. Through her, a cast of quirky townsfolk come into focus as the storm approaches, and everyone bickers over the proposed oil pipeline that will bring in big money but is environmentally devastating. And that’s before the corpse is discovered.
What makes the mystery of Werewolves Within especially fun is Beaverfield’s residents are played by a roster of character actors who bounce off one another in the way the cast of Clue did: Harvey Guillén (What We Do In The Shadows), George Basil (Crashing), Sarah Burns (Barry), Michael Chernus (Tommy), Catherine Curtin (Orange is the New Black), Wayne Duvall (The Hunt), Rebecca Henderson (Russian Doll), Cheyenne Jackson (30 Rock), Michaela Watkins (Brittany Runs A Marathon), Glenn Fleshler (True Detective).
Ruben and Wolff joined Den of Geek for a Paranormal Pop Culture Hour to discuss their collaboration on the video game adaptation. In the following interview, they likewise talk of a shared love of werewolf flicks, as well as why murder mysteries and creature features go hand-in-paw.
Note: Quotes edited lightly for clarity and length
What were the werewolves you loved growing up? Mishna, since your last name is Wolff, I think that entitles you to go first.
Mishna Wolff: There’s so many. Joe Dante’s The Howling, for sure. Definitely Wolfen, starring Albert Finney. That’s a great werewolf story. He’s actually wasted in that movie, as well. I would say Silver Bullet has a fun kids’ story in it.
Obviously, An American Werewolf in London, but I was always like, “More decaying humans! Can we get more decaying humans on the screen?” I feel like he uses them so sparingly. I could’ve done twice as many decaying humans.
Josh, what scratched your lycanthropic itch?
Josh Ruben: Clawed, even. I mean, the first one that really hit me was the guy in Monster Squad. He was a blue collar, everyday fellow who you really seem to feel his excruciating pain and torment, and that really hit me. There was something about the kids that kind of went after all the entities in that movie, but the werewolf in that one was particularly terrifying, and so much of it came through his performance. I think between him and the one in Silver Bullet, ridiculous as it ultimately ended up looking, that is a dreadful — as in a good dreadful — terrifying film. It really felt like what would really happen if you and your drunk uncle had to take on a lycan.
Later in life, my most recent favorite is Late Phases. I think that movie is so good. It’s so brilliant, and it’s also a Hudson Valley production. I was shocked by how much I loved that one. That’s a new fave.
Video game adaptations are so often not very good movies. So what was your approach? Was it to just sort of toss away the entire game? What elements do you think were important to preserve from the VR game?
Mishna Wolff: The feel. I mean, I feel like that was always the thing. All screenwriters who you talk to about adaptations, and they talk about, “What do you owe the source material?” I think you owe it the feel, and I feel like certainly, in the midpoint of the movie, when everyone’s huddled in the inn and they’re trying to ferret out who the werewolf is, it does feel like that video game, even though it’s a different era.
How did you set out to play with archetypes and the role women often play in these films?
Mishna Wolff: The movie started out with a lot of thinking about archetypes. I happen to love movies with pretty clearly-drawn archetypes. I like archetypes. I feel like it’s reassuring when you walk into a movie and you feel like “Oh, I know who that guy is.”
I like upsetting archetypes and having little things be different about the archetype than you expect, but feminism certainly plays a role in those archetypes and women in film haven’t always been given life and death stakes, so that was a huge thing that I was thinking of.
Josh, in Scare Me, there is a werewolf sequence. Was that in a strange way, a being a bit of an audition of sorts for Werewolves Within as your second feature?
Josh Ruben: I think it ended up being the case in Scare Me because it is the creature that freaks me out the most and that story, silly as it is, the first one out in Scare Me, is an idea I’ve had in the back of my head forever that just kind of collects cobwebs. It’s all crazy coincidence, and I’m happy to find my brand in recessed shadows, creatures in the dark and quirky, emasculated human beings. I think I’d be fine to tell those stories again and again.
Why do werewolves and murder mysteries pair well?
Josh Ruben: Going back to Silver Bullet, you have that priest character who, once it was revealed he was the big bad, it became that digging your fingernails into your knees, like “Oh my God, they have no idea they’re in the presence of this awful thing.” That’s terrifying, more so than a vampire or pretty much anything else. It’s the true movie monster, where they can walk amongst us during the day and be our brother, best friend, mother, father, whatever, but turn out to be the most violent thing, and terrifying thing imaginable.
And we can all have a monster within?
Josh Ruben: It makes sense, in the allegory of it all. In a film like this, everyone can be implicated. The allegory and theme of it all is, we all have violent, dreadful thoughts every once in a while when pushed to our limits. Even Sam’s character, as wonderful a protagonist as he is, he’s pushed to his limit, as well. Every character could have reason to be a werewolf, hence the wonderful mystery of it all, but it played lockstep for me. It’s a testament to Mishna’s incredible work. I just opened it and was just like, this feels like Arachnophobia and Fargo.
Sam Richardson’s Finn is the new ranger in town and he’s a nice guy. But there’s the notion that either nice guys finish last, or nice guys are too good to be true. So why are we so against nice guys?
Mishna Wolff: Well, yeah, a person can be too good to be true. There’s a couple of nice guys in this movie that are suspicious, and the reason Finn is such a nice guy is because the movie that we fashioned is his worst nightmare. He’s afraid of conflict, he’s a nice guy and he’s about to enter the epicenter of meanness. This movie’s designed to torture him and break him, and it almost does.
Josh Ruben: Nice guys have werewolves within them, mean guys have werewolves within them. Oh, it’s just fascinating to play with the archetype because I think Bundy was a nice guy, at least in his circle, and Gacy, so it’s fun to play with those kind of expectations. There’s a wonderful moment, without giving anything away, where even this wonderful protagonist reaches a breaking point where he has to match everyone else and it should raise the question “Well, shit, could it be the nicest character of all?”
Was there any version of this movie where there may not have been an actual werewolf?
Mishna Wolff: No. I thought about going there and just having it be more cerebral and meta, but I always start everything with the end in mind. Josh was super collaborative, and he had some tweaks on the ending. The werewolf is the werewolf, and that didn’t change, but he made some really nice changes to the ending and I thought it worked really quite well.
Josh, what did you discover about the challenges of tackling a werewolf movie where you’re ultimately going to have to show the monster?
Josh Ruben: When it came down to the werewolf, it’s like, “Well, we don’t need to see skin breaking, we know what this is going to be, we can evoke that visceral transformation and the terror of it all, but let’s just get to it.” At that point, when it came to the werewolf itself, it was nothing too extravagant. It was just like, “Oh shit, this is going to happen.”
Also, within the mythology of this character and this thing, and how fast it killed, it was fun to think about it having control over its changing as part of its, again, mythology and how it went about its business.
Mishna Wolff: That was such a conversation in the room, too, about, “Can it control? It can’t control? How come it can control? What kind of … ” It’s like “Doesn’t matter. Trust me.”
Josh Ruben: No one will be writing mean letters if they’re along for the ride, if they feel taken care of, whether the claws retract or extend, whether they change quickly or not, it’s just got to be a fun ride.
Mishna Wolff: I think the creature features that Josh and I grew up loving were always done a little bit on the cheap with the exception of maybe The Thing and Alien, which were really crazy expensive, but I think that’s part of the fun of the creature feature, to me at least
Josh, with Scare Me, you used the word “incel,” which you filmed before it was part of our lexicon. Now, this is neighbor against neighbor, people are either hiding the truth or rejecting it, and there is the idea that being grouped together can lead to your own death. You could not have predicted the relevancy of this, so how is it landing for you now?
Josh Ruben: It’s pretty phenomenal when people like Michaela Watkins improvise a line like “Antifa.” You think “Oh, that’s going to be the shelf-life joke that will end up on the cutting room floor.” And no, it remains to be one of the more relevant pieces of the film and of this character.
I mean, she’s a Karen. She was a Karen before the Karen thing. With incel, it’s funny, too, because Aya Cash was the first one. She improvised that line, “What are you, an incel?” I didn’t know what the word meant and Fred quite was.
It’s unfortunate how relevant it is, but I’m thrilled that it is because I’d like to think that the film is a ride so, hopefully, regardless of what people take away from it, regardless of the relevance of it all, I’d like to think that it’s coming out at a time where, after the trauma of it all, from the insurrect-y through the pandem-y, that people can at least forget the trauma of the past 16 and a half months and sort of go for the ride. We’re offering less bleak fare; we’re offering more fun fare coming out of this dark chapter, but it’s both wonderful and terrifying that it’s so relevant and will remain to be. There will always be people who are narrow-minded in small corners of the world and narrow-minded in the most liberal corners of the world, as well. The newcomers are no better than the townies, in some cases, in many cases in the film.
Mishna Wolff: I think we were banking that people would be ready to laugh at everything that’s gone on, at this point, that people would be ready … Can we make fun of it now? Is it too soon? No?
Werewolves Within is in theaters now, and will be available on Digital Rental & VOD July 2, 2021