In Werewolves Within, a film adaptation of Ubisoft’s popular video game, naïve and lovable forest ranger Finn Wheeler has a problem. The denizens of his new post of Beaverton, Vermont, are at each other’s throats, divided along ideological boundaries by a proposed pipeline that shifty oilman Sam Parker wants to run through the middle of town.
Then, as a storm approaches, Beaverton’s generators are sabotaged. Everyone takes shelter in the town’s inn — a cozy-sinister structure straight out of the board game Clue — as secrets and lies fester in this seemingly wholesome snowbound burg.
Did we mention there’s also bloodthirsty werewolf stalking the woods and picking off the inhabitants one by one? Or so some characters seem to believe.
Werewolves Within mixes spine-tingling chills with belly laughs, infusing the horror comedy genre with wit, political satire, feminism, and a whodunnit plot as the townsfolk come to terms with claims that one of them is a lycanthrope. It’s the first movie produced by the Ubisoft Film & Television division. It’s also the first co-production credit for Margaret Boykin, who spent much of her childhood in Davidson and recently moved to Los Angeles to head the fledgling production company.
“Monster movies have always been a thing,” Boykin says when we phone her Los Angeles office. “The fun thing about Werewolves Within [is] that it allowed us to combine the sort of things you love about a murder mystery with the things you love about a monster movie.”
Ubisoft Film & Television’s genre-blending gambit has paid off. Director Josh Ruben’s sharp compositions and taut pacing along with the ensemble cast’s arch portrayals and surefooted comedic pacing have garnered the movie an approval rating of 86% based on 97 reviews on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
The film relaunched Charlotte Film Society’s Back Alley Film series at C3 Lab in the last week of June, which will help the local organization open its new community cinema. Nationally, Werewolves Within grossed $250,811 in 270 theaters on its opening weekend and has received positive reviews from Variety, RogerEbert.com and others. The film is currently in theaters and streaming on demand.
Boykin, who shepherded this mirth, mayhem, satire and slaughter from development to distribution, grew up in Davidson, where her family had a home until 2010. She travels back to town frequently to see her extended family.
“Davidson has a very special place in my heart,” Boykin says.
While attending Barnard College in New York, she landed her first film industry gig, interning as a research assistant for a writer working on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. There she learned about story construction, breaking down scripts into beat sheets, a chronological list of plot points and story beats.
A subsequent internship for United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills, California led to a full time job at the agency after Boykin graduated. She says the experience she gained at UTA was invaluable for understanding how the film and television industry works and how movies are made. She left the agency to work for producer Elizabeth Cantillon, who had a first look deal with Columbia Pictures.
Soon Boykin was ready to make her move to become an executive and call the shots herself. That’s when she turned to the French-American video game company Ubisoft. The company boasted a massive video-game library, and management was looking for someone to help create film and television adaptations of those games.
“Video games were a huge part of my childhood, [but] I wouldn’t say I entered the position as a gamer,” Boykin says.
Instead, she was impressed by the company’s initiative to become a main player in Hollywood. Boykin believes video-game adaptations are the wave of the future in the film and TV industry, and the future is already here. According to a report published by the Entertainment Software Association (ESE) in 2020, the gaming industry in the U.S. alone garnered more than 214 million players in 2019.
“That means 5% of all U.S. households have at least one person that plays games,” Boykin says. “We’re confident that stories based [on] games and … gaming have a place in the culture.”
Gamers get a special treat with Werewolves Within. The film’s isolated inn, with its winding dark hallways and rough-hewn wooden walls, mimics the game’s visuals. Yet the movie reaches for a broader audience as well, offering a send-up of monster movies and cozy murder mysteries like countless “who-cares whodunnits” by best-selling author Agatha Christie.
Werewolves plays like a grislier version of Knives Out, but the tone is a darker mash-up of the Coen brother’s Fargo and John Carpenter’s The Thing.
At first, the townsfolk seem to be stereotypes, but the performers imbue their characters with life in arching, over-the-top performances. As suspicions fester and tensions wind tight as a watch spring, the heavily armed townspeople oblige the mysterious killer by gleefully knocking each other off in a murderous round-robin.
Standouts include Javier “Harvey” Guillén — best known for as the human familiar Guillermo de la Cruz in the TV show What We Do in the Shadows — as Joaquim, one half of a sharp-tongued but sympathetic gay couple; and Catherine Curtin (Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black) as put-upon innkeeper Jeanine.
Sam Richardson (Veep) imbues Ranger Finn with an innate decency, turning what could be a weak character into a tower of affable, Mr. Rogers-quoting strength.
“One thing I love about the movie is the way it has something great to say about community and the way we are actually stronger when we work together,” Boykin offers.
Richardson strikes genuine indie-romcom-style sparks with chipper mail carrier Cecily, played with effervescent wit by Milana Vayntrub, whom most will recognize as the longtime face of AT&T television commercials.
For Ubisoft Film & Television’s calling card, Boykin says Werewolves Within is not intended to be a grand slam. Instead, it’s a strong first feature with broad appeal that the company has financed and produced outside of the studio system.
“It’s a great movie that stands in its own right, even without the [original game],” Boykin says. “It’s very much in line with action movies that fit Ubisoft’s ethos, [without being] trite.”
The film also makes its strongest statements in support of feminism. Pete, the male half of the conservative couple, proves to be a slimy womanizer who gets the hand he often attempts to place on women’s bodies violently removed in one of the film’s more shocking scenes. Doormat Jeanine proves to be adept with a crossbow when it counts the most.
The message and tone may be a result of the Women’s Film and Television Fellowship that Boykin launched four years ago. The fellowship, designed to highlight women’s voices in film and TV, explores Ubisoft’s library of game titles to create a full slate of projects. Women are encouraged to pitch film and TV ideas drawing on the culture and community of gaming. It was through the foundation that screenwriter Mishna Wolff developed her scalpel-sharp script for Werewolves Within.
“[The foundation] is reflective of Ubisoft Film and Television’s dedication to fostering original underserved voices,” Boykin says. “It’s the first of its kind in the industry.”
Beside being thrilling, funny, gory and entertaining, Werewolves contains interesting messages about agency and the power of coming together to overcome the odds, Boykin says.
“For the company it’s a way to show people that we’re not afraid to take risks, and that we’re really about good storytelling at any scale.”
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