The video game movie that's garnered all the attention this year was Mortal Kombat, and that movie was bad! The one you should be paying attention to is Werewolves Within, which comes out this week. Werewolves Within, about a group of weirdos stuck in the middle of a blizzard trying to figure out which person in their group is a werewolf, is a very fun whodunit.
Did you have fun with Knives Out, but wish there was way more more cartoonish violence?
There's a decent chance you've never heard of Werewolves Within, despite being one of the few movies successfully made based on a Ubisoft property. And, again, it's good. (It's worth pointing out Ubisoft is also a partner in making the underrated Mythic Quest on Apple TV.) Ubisoft, the company that's never seen a piece of technology it didn't want to throw a few experiments at, at one point was interested in virtual reality. One of the games it produced was 2016's Werewolves Within, a riff on the popular social deduction game Werewolf.
Werewolf is itself a spin-off of another social dedication game Mafia. The premises are similar for both, hinging on a group of people trying to figure out who's lying about their true nature. In Werewolf, one or more participants are secretly lycanthrope. At night, the werewolves can kill villagers. During the game's day phase, the villagers debate who's the werewolf and whether they should kill one of their own, suspecting them to be the killer.
"I'm a terrible liar," said Werewolves Within screenwriter Mishna Wolff in a recent interview.
Wolff, a comedian and author of the 2009 memoir I'm Down about growing up white in a Black neighborhood, started her research on adapting Werewolves Within by watching videos of people playing the game and trying to understand what motivated their actions.
"A lot of people would come on and they were all friends and they knew each other and other people had met in the game," she said. "And the thing that was interesting to me is they just brought their baggage with them. So there was not a lot of ferreting out the real werewolf as much as like, 'oh, fuck Joe. I never liked him anyways. [laughs]'"
This is extremely real. Playing Werewolf with strangers and friends is such a different experience. With strangers, my experience has been that folks are careful and cautious, and likely to try and role-play their assigned character, until more information is available to the group. With friends, it's cutthroat. Years of past grievances and preconceived notions about personality types become rhetorical weapons. I know my wife can't lie worth a damn, and you can be sure I'll use that to my advantage while trying to figure out if she's the werewolf.
"I felt like these horrible logic choices people make because of their own petty grievances with each other would just lend itself really well to a story," said Wolff.
Werewolves Within itself doesn't have established lore and characters. The worldbuilding happens within the game itself, frequently carrying over from one game to the next. As such, for a screenwriter, Wolff was essentially handed an open book premise. This is pretty unlike something like the last major Ubisoft theatrical adaptation, Assassin's Creed, which was a terrible film for a million reasons besides feeling overly obligated to its established universe, but that is an issue many of these movies run into. Let the movie be a good movie, first and foremost. With Werewolves Within, there was nowhere else to go. It was blank, and no fan was going to blink when the setting moved from outside a medieval castle to a small town.
"The thing I like about horror is the original sin. As a storytelling nerd, it's a great device because I feel like a lot of what you're doing is balancing a ledger. And in horror, the original sin is so much less than what's going to happen than the payback for the original sin. [laughs]"
That said, the first scene Wolff wrote is both the heart of the movie and directly lifts from the central dynamic of Werewolf and, by extension, Ubisoft's own game Werewolves Within: a group of people sitting in a circle and talking to one another. It happens a little bit into the movie, once the characters are introduced, aka a version of assigning roles to each player.
"That was the first thing I wrote," she said. "That was the conception of the movie and it's not a surprise it's the midpoint. That scene there is really what I felt like I owed the video game in this adaptation."
The question, then, was easy: who was in this group?
"Who would be the best character to put in this scenario?" said Wolff. "How about someone who's really nice and believes in human connection and that humanity owes something to each other and someone who hates conflict, can't stand conflict? [laughs] So it was really easy to just go from there to arrive at a character like Finn Wheeler who is walking into actually his worst nightmare and not because of the werewolf."
Which makes perfect that Finn Wheeler is played by Sam Richardson of Veep, Detroiters, and I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. Richardson has this disarming charm that makes so much of his comedy work, and he slots into Wheeler's goofy disposition perfectly.
Wolff said Ubisoft was pretty hands off and let her go "down a cul de sac" while writing.
She did admit to playing a little bit of various Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games while writing the script, but most of her video game playing—she namechecked Doom and Riven—is in her past. These days, she's busy and unhealthily obsessed with the game Little Big Snake, where you spend your time doing the obvious: make a little snake a big snake.
The real joy, she said, was coming up with the movie's endless and over the top kills.
"Part of the real fun of writing this script was inventing ways to die in Vermont. [laughs]" she said. "I also did improv. I was a UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] person and I mostly did stand up there. But a lot of what you learn is to use what's in the room, and that's a really fun thing to do in rural New England."
Her favorite kill, which I won't spoil her but will confirm is a delight, involves a syrup tap.
"The thing I like about horror is the original sin," said Wolff. "As a storytelling nerd, it's a great device because I feel like a lot of what you're doing is balancing a ledger. And in horror, the original sin is so much less than what's going to happen than the payback for the original sin. [laughs]"
Werewolves Within is in theaters this week, and available on-demand starting July 2.