“Trespass and die,” reads an unneighborly sign glimpsed early in Josh Ruben’s agile, niftily directed whodunit “Werewolves Within.” While it specifically refers to some local’s private property, one could safely apply the warning to the whole snow-clad Vermont village that surrounds it. Welcome to Beaverfield, a sleepy town chock-full of secrets, lies and ideological disparities you should only enter at your own peril. But know that it’s a risk well worth taking, especially if Rian Johnson’s delectable caper “Knives Out” has recently scratched your itch for cozily inviting, steadily funny murder mysteries where the identity of the killer is anyone’s guess until the end.
Along with his crafty screenwriter Mishna Wolff, Ruben constructs a similarly snug and entertaining world, one filled with wood-heavy interiors illuminated by crackling fireplaces and golden lanterns, where a group of terrified, booze-chugging Beaverfield dwellers has to wait out a snowstorm, brave a blackout and survive a mysterious razor-clawed creature that has been slashing the limbs of their fellow denizens out there in the dark. Turns out, there isn’t safety in numbers for this crowd, as being stuck in one another’s exasperating company gradually proves to be more frightening than anything. While various prejudices and disagreements among the pack wildly surface (the chief dispute is about an economically promising but environmentally ruinous pipeline plan), the death toll also rises beneath the roof of the quaint Beaverfield Inn, a secluded lodge conceived by someone who clearly believes hell is other people and has seen his share of locked-in horror staples, from “The Shining” to “The Thing.”
But despite all the severed, bloody body parts — plus an innocent doggie that falls victim to the madness ‚ “Werewolves Within” is more playfully thrilling than scary in tone. This quality makes sense, considering both the video-game roots of the film’s source material and Ruben’s genre interests, evidenced earlier with his mildly gripping yet overlong 2020 debut feature, “Scare Me.” Similar in its curiosities and cabin-in-the-woods assembly, “Werewolves Within” marks a more disciplined and substantial outing for the filmmaker, who benefits immensely from working with Wolff here. Maintaining a lean sense of suspense throughout, the scribe fashions all her characters with memorable attributes and plenty of social observations, yielding a compelling range of suspects none of which you can write off entirely.
The story’s bouncy mayhem commences after a prologue that gives the viewer a taste of murder committed by some unseen, bloodthirsty brute. On the heels of this incident, we follow the locale’s newly minted forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson, banking on his brand of lovable naiveté from “Veep”) as he drives into town exactly 29.5 days after the tragic occurrence, unaware of the imminent doom. (Spot the shyly geeky nod to Danny Boyle’s zombie masterpiece.) Greeting him in town is the dutiful postal worker Cecily (the long-running AT&T commercials’ Milana Vayntrub, stupendously, almost hyperbolically genial), a sweet, affable, Walden-reading, kombucha-drinking model townie who happily gives Finn the skinny on everybody’s dirty laundry.
What follows is a who’s-who rundown of Beaverfield, a seemingly picturesque place politically divided right down the middle, much like the country at large. There’s innkeeper Jeanine (Catherine Curtin), who always seems to be mumbling about something, from feeding her guests to her missing-in-action husband. There’s rich city slickers Devon and Joachim Wolfson (Cheyenne Jackson and Harvey Guillén, both superb), an urban, high-tech power couple who’s relocated to the country with their millions and opened a yoga studio. Then we meet the cartoonishly conservative Andertons Trish and Pete (a gloriously peculiar Michaela Watkins and effectively cringey Michael Chernus), the town’s maple syrup farmers who wholeheartedly support the pipeline and want nothing more than to open a craft store.
Also in the mix is the married couple Marcus and Gwen (George Basil and Sarah Burns), a pair of hilarious weirdos who run the town’s auto repair shop. Igniting the clan’s underlying grudges is the corporate bigwig Sam Parker (Wayne Duvall), taking pride in a fiery torch he’s pitched in the town circle to represent the supposed prosperity his pipeline project promises. (His setup is so riotously suggestive in its appearance that Cecily calls it “Parker’s phallic fire totem.”) Fiercely opposing Parker’s proposal is the environmentalist academician Dr. Ellis (Rebecca Henderson), a recluse quietly residing at the inn. Somewhere on the Beaverfield outskirts lives another hermit, Emerson Flint (Glenn Fleshler), who openly despises the bunch.
It all sounds more complicated than it actually is, and Ruben and Wolff run with the intricacies, scoring laughs and jolts among the ranks of this desperately frantic crew, while also investing in an especially rewarding dynamic between Richardson’s clueless, perennially cordial romantic and Vayntrub’s overeagerly helpful do-gooder. Predictably, Wolff humorously throws a sizable array of social and political commentary around societal unity against the wall to see what sticks — including such familiar phrases as “lock her up,” “Brooklyn hipsters” and “Mr. Rogers,” some of which land more effectively than others. Elsewhere, the writer doesn’t engage with Finn’s race in an overwhelmingly white town nearly thoughtfully enough. Though she absolutely soars in the feminism department, dismantling casual misogyny and toxic patriarchy in a juicy final act that genuinely shocks. In the end, the title—which hints at the dark side in all of us—doesn’t exactly pay off, neither as political or psychological insight.
One can argue that the literal werewolf saga mixed in the tale (with an on-the-cheap transformation scene that will disappoint the fans of “An American Werewolf in London”) feels almost superfluous in the aftermath. But unafraid to sink its teeth into current affairs, “Werewolves Within” still has the kind of sharp bite that feels fresh, even fearless.