Based on Ubisoft’s Mafia-like VR game of the same name, “Werewolves Within” is a charmingly slight horror-comedy whodunnit about the sheer terror of having to live alongside the kind of grown-ass, shotgun-toting, white American man who’s never even heard of Mr. Rogers. How are you supposed to share a country with a person like that? Emerson Flint (the always excellent Glenn Fleshler) and his “Revenant”-inspired wardrobe may not be the most dangerous threat awaiting forest ranger Finn Wheeler (“Veep” breakout Sam Richardson) in the snowy New England town to which he’s just been reassigned, but the guy’s “stay the fuck off my property” attitude proves typical of a place where virtually no one bothers to be a good neighbor — least of all the werewolf who may or may not be eating its way through the residents of Beaverfield.
The spirit of Mr. Rogers (or the lack thereof) runs deep in “Scare Me” director Josh Ruben’s feather-light but fiercely likeable second feature, which establishes its winking tone through an introductory quote that it attributes to the TV icon with a jump-scare: “Listening is where love begins. Listening to ourselves and then our neighbors.” A lovely sentiment, to be sure, yet “Werewolves Within” can’t help but wonder if such an enduring icon of grace and civility would’ve been able to maintain his faith in other people had he lived to see the Trump era or what it left behind. What good does listening do when everyone in your neighborhood is greedy, armed, and afraid of being eaten alive by a monster who preys on the most vulnerable?
Needless to say, the people of Beaverfield aren’t hearing each other very well these days — sharply divided opinion about selling land to an eager gas company doesn’t help — and tensions flare in a hurry when a blizzard forces ranger Finn and all 10 or so of the townspeople to huddle together at the local inn. And so the stage is set for a peppy, pleasant, bed and breakfast-sized take on a hybrid genre that tends to work best when it has a bit more room to stretch its legs. But what this quaint little “Hot Fuzz” homage lacks in scale, it nearly makes up for with a stacked cast of delightful comic actors who all deliver the goods.
That starts with Richardson, who steps into a leading role with more than enough charisma and clear-eyed goodness to anchor the rest of Ruben’s ensemble cast. A virtuous but unassertive type who’s stoic enough to save the day but soft enough to get steamrolled by everyone he meets on the way there, Finn is basically a living argument that beta males will be America’s salvation — he enters the movie sitting behind the wheel of a PT Cruiser and chanting the word “balls” at the behest of a self-help tape — and Richardson sells the character’s “it’s fucking okay to be nice” ethos with the light touch of someone who’s starting to doubt his own principles. There’s little mention of the fact that Finn is the only Black person in a lily white town, but his presence contributes to the already percolating fear of the other that threatens to rip Beaverfield apart (if the werewolf doesn’t do it first).
The only person who greets Finn with open arms — and helps take the edge off what’s going to be a rough first day on the job — is Cecily the sweet-natured postal worker (AT&T icon Milana Vayntrub, radiating movie star potential in a winsome performance that shades her natural comic sass with all sorts of self-aware texture). If everything about her seems too good to be true, well, that balances out a town where everyone else is just bad enough to feel real. Michaela Watkins is an obvious standout as Trish, the “Wanderlust” star having a grand old time as the kind of dog-loving, deceptively harmless Amy Cooper type who won’t hesitate to ruin someone’s entire life the moment that she feels threatened.
Wayne Duvall chews the atmospheric scenery as the cowboy-hatted capitalist who’s hellbent on damming Beaverfield forever, Sarah Burns and “Crashing” breakout George Basil add a reliably funny sense of frisson to the town’s least impressive people, Rebecca Henderson puts on a brave face as the animal expert who spends most of the movie sequencing wolf DNA in her hotel room, and Michael Chernus brings some killer Michael Chernus energy to the action as only Michael Chernus can. Even Beaverfield’s resident liberals are insufferable, as Harvey Guillén and Cheyenne Jackson play a gay couple who never stop finding subtle new ways of reminding everyone how rich they are.
The finger-pointing accusations that fly between these characters range from clever to cringe-worthy — a quip about the progressivism of a “Mexican standoff” stands out as a particularly tough beat in a movie that’s never as funny as the people who are in it — but even the worst jokes are delivered with rare comic panache. And while “Werewolves Within” shies away from being scary in a bid to protect its “we’re all having fun here” tone, the whodunnit of it all remains intriguing all the way up to the big reveal because each of the film’s characters is clearly defined and capable of dehumanizing anyone who makes them feel even the slightest bit unsafe.
That late twist can’t save Ruben’s sophomore effort from its hemmed-in smallness, as the pat final grace note at the end of this 90-minute romp points to the missing gonzo quality of an Edgar Wright movie (all of which shift into a feverish new gear down the home stretch). But even so, the resourceful young director has once again proven his ability to make something out of nothing. If he has a lot more to work with here than he did in the ultra-spartan “Scare Me,” he still does enough with it to deserve a bite at a bigger project in the future. With nothing more than a self-destructive rabble of frenzied Americans at his disposal, Ruben proves that good neighbors are never more valuable than when a killer is calling from inside your own house.
“Werewolves Within” premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. IFC Films will release it in theaters on Friday, June 25, and on VOD on Friday, July 2.