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Horror and comedy are the peanut butter and jelly of movie genres — two things that exist completely on their own which combine to form a magical, alchemical third thing in part because of what they share. There's the same sense of setup and payoff in the timing of both genres, the building and releasing of tension at very specific points for very specific effects. Combine them, and you've got two great tastes that taste great together.
We know this, of course, and we've known at least since the days when Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were hanging out with The Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster in the Universal Monsters glory days, but simply saying "horror and comedy pair well" is taking for granted just how hard it is to get the mixture just right. When it's going well, horror-comedy looks easy, but despite the similarities in the narrative building blocks of both genres, getting the blend to work onscreen is a delicate, often perilous balancing act between the silly and the scary. Lean too far one way or the other, and suddenly neither element works, and you're left with a mess. Walk that line just right, though, and you've got that PB&J magic.
This brings me to Werewolves Within, the new horror-comedy that's easily among the most fun experiences I've had with a new film in the last year. Whether you like some laughs with your scares, some scares with your laughs, or you're just a horror wimp who still wants to participate in the spooky fun, Josh Ruben's new film is for 2021 what Freaky was for 2020 and Ready or Not was for 2019: A charming, clever blend of the funny and the frightening that will make your summer instantly better.
Like Ruben's previous blend of horror and comedy, the excellent Scare Me, Werewolves Within is a rather intimate affair, despite a somewhat larger cast of characters. The setup is blissfully, even deceptively simple, following a forest ranger named Finn (Sam Richardson) who's just arrived in a small snowy town to start work. Once there, he meets the charming mail carrier Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), who quickly takes him through the town's cast of eccentric characters, all of whom have taken sides in a recent dispute over a new gas pipeline project that would alter the town's map forever. Of course, that dispute takes a backseat when a snowstorm knocks out the power and everyone holes up at the local inn to wait it out, only to find that one of their newfound sleepover buddies is probably a werewolf.
There's a little more going on behind this supernatural whodunit premise, of course. Sam's got some issues stemming from things he left behind at his old home, his relationship with Cecily gets complicated rather quickly, and every member of the town ensemble seems to have their own little seed of inner turmoil just waiting to sprout in the fertile tension of the plot. Mishna Wolff's script for the film deftly plants each of these seeds, many of them before the audience has even realized it, and by the time the whole cast is together at the inn, arguing by firelight, we've got a suitably spooky powder keg on our hands.
As he did with Scare Me, Ruben expertly drills down into this combustible brew of personalities, bolstered by a cast that heavily features scene-stealers like Harvey Guillén and George Basil and leans as much on the weird tangents characters are willing to go off on as it does the inherent tension of a werewolf praying on them. The cast, led by Richardson and Vayntrub, steps up to make all this tension work with an extraordinary sense of verisimilitude, as they all prove both game to dive right into werewolf lore and adept at making us feel like they really can't let go of their petty squabbles and particularly insular (and often very funny) issues. There's a sense that everyone in the room is capable of, at the very least, being kind of a jerk at times, so perhaps any of them could also be an all-out monster, and with that feeling comes a robust and provocative crop of narrative questions. Are they all monsters? Is the real monster humanity itself? Are we ever going to actually see this wolf?
Fortunately, while all of those ideas are very much in play, Ruben and Wolff prove themselves to be nimble, witty storytellers who never hit any of these themes so hard that it knocks the film off its axis. This is a comedy, after all, and Ruben paces the film with just enough quirky character-based humor to cut the tension and heaviness throughout, making the film both light as a feather and packed with enough resonance to reward frequent rewatching. Then, just as you've relaxed into the laughter, Ruben's gift for claustrophobic tension pays off again, and you're reminded that there's a monster out there.
That blending of sensibilities, combined with Ruben's maturation as a filmmaker even after the triumph of Scare Me, makes Werewolves Within the kind of film that's going to win over audiences everywhere from midnight screenings to slumber parties. The horror-comedy canon just got a new member, and it's got a mouthful of grinning teeth.
Werewolves Within, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival yesterday, opens in theaters on June 25 and will be available on-demand as of July 2.