A blizzard is wreaking havoc on a small-town soon after a mild-mannered Sheriff (Sam Richardson) arrives for his new post. With the townsfolk trapped inside and political rivalries rearing their ugly heads over some land development, tensions are higher than ever. This would be a pretty awful time for a werewolf to start tearing people to shreds, huh?
That’s the setup for Josh Ruben’s new horror-comedy Werewolves Within, adapted by writer Mishna Wolff from the Ubisoft video game. Don’t let that “video game movie” designation fool you, though, as Wolff has taken the basic premise of the source material and forged her own story out of it that’s rife with humor, mystery, and a cavalcade of entertaining characters.
For his sophomore feature (following up the similarly chilly setting and tone of his debut Scare Me), Ruben has assembled a wonderful ensemble of ace comedic actors, including Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, Michael Chernus, Michaela Watkins, Wayne Duvall, Glenn Fleshler, and plenty more. The result is a horror comedy that actually manages to generate shrieks and chuckles in equal measure, with some political commentary and genre subversion laced in along the way.
I had the chance to sit down with Ruben to speak about some of his biggest influences on both this film and his career at large, along with the messages that he hopes people get out of Werewolves Within when it comes to being a good neighbor. He also makes his case for why he should get to reboot Darkman.
Read my interview with Josh Ruben below:
Mitchell Beaupre: I’m a really big fan of your work, and something that I love about your movies is you can really feel that you’re a huge fan of cinema. How did you discover your love of movies in the first place, and what made you want to be a filmmaker?
Josh Ruben: Oh my god. Wonderful question. That is a great question. Growing up in the ‘80s in the VHS era, between my parents and my sister, they kind of allowed me to watch pretty much anything. At night it’d be my sister watching Nightmare on Elm Street, and then during the day I’m watching American Tail. All of Spielberg’s stuff, so like E.T. and Jaws – ugh, how surprising, 37-year-old Caucasian filmmaker. It was that combination, though, of like Looney Tunes and Spielberg and late night VHS tapes of schlocky ‘80s horror that really pulled me in. It wasn’t anything too artistic, although my dad introduced me to The Three Stooges. Then as I grew up I started to get in a pinch of Hammer horror and vampire films. Anything Christopher Lee.
MB: Watching Werewolves Within certainly brought to mind that feeling for me of being a teenager and discovering movies like The Thing and An American Werewolf in London, but those meeting something like Twin Peaks, with the community aspect of it. What were some of the specific influences for you when putting this together?
JR: As soon as I opened Mishna Wolff’s script I immediately thought of Arachnophobia. It felt very much in that vein of shit hitting the fan in a small town to that degree. It was also irreverent though, like a Coen brothers film. Stylistically, I knew that between those two kinds of approaches I also wanted to emulate that Spielbergian vibe. My conversations with the actors where they’re like, “What’s the tone of this with a title like that? Do we trust you?”, was to tell them that it was like Fargo, but an Amblin film.
MB: Your first feature, Scare Me, was one that you wrote yourself, but here you’re pulling from someone else’s words. What was it about Mishna’s script that drew you in and told you that you had to make this movie?
JR: The humor was all there. Mishna has such a thrill ride way of describing sequences on the page. I’m a dense human being. I got a 950 on my SATs, so I need to have a digestible reading experience and to truly be able to see the characters, see the world. I was worried when I was offered the opportunity to throw my hat in the ring that I wouldn’t get it, or that it would be too smart for my dense self. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to find a way in, because I wanted the gig so bad. I wanted the experience and I fell for it right away. The characters, the horror of it, the humor of it, it all pulled me in, and was so reminiscent off the bat of the kinds of films I grew up watching. I saw myself being able to imbue a lot of the tone and aesthetic of everything that I loved from a movie like Arachnophobia or Monster Squad. There’s actually Monster Squad green that I put in the film. That script just hit all sides of the lizard brain.
MB: This movie has a stacked roster of comedic legends. What was the vibe on set of navigating the mix between the horror and the comedy of the film?
JR: I think the key to creating great horror comedy is not getting caught trying to be funny. This is an improv rule imbued in me from my improv teacher Kathy Hendrickson, and Mike Nichols is the same way – you ask yourself, what would really happen? Then you play the scene like that. There was a degree of playing the stakes grounded, playing the emotionality of it all grounded, but as a director and a comedian I’m the barometer for if we can take the humor a little bit further in certain spots. The tone on set was like everyone doing bits, and then I’m wrangling everyone in and saying that we all need to focus in and get into the scene.
MB: There’s so much going on in the film, and one of the fascinating undercurrents is the depiction of community and how quickly one small thing can bring all of these tensions to the surface and cause people to turn on each other. After seeing how the world essentially has erupted over the last year or so, did that impact the way you viewed the film at all?
JR: I think it reinforced those ideas that were there in the script already. It’s a testament to Mishna’s wonderful script. It doesn’t necessarily poke fun at anyone who leans too far on one spectrum or not, but there are certainly some aesthetic callout moments to Trump in terms of signage that’s used and that was definitely intentional without wanting to be like a ham-fisted jerk about it. I think those ideas are only accentuated now where you’re looking at the world and thinking, “God, where are all the good people?” And also, we’re so angry and stand so strongly in our convictions for justifying that anger. That’s why I think it’s so beautiful when Finn expresses this frustration and this plea for people to just be good. He says it so passionately there at the end, and I think that’s what a lot of us are craving.
MB: Is that something that you hope that people walk out of the movie thinking about? Maybe they walk out of the theater after the film and they’re a little bit kinder to the stranger on the street than they would have been before seeing the film.
JR: That would be a wonderful epiphany for anybody to have. I think by nature of the buoyancy of the movie that it’s hopefully going to be a ride that makes people feel a sort of relief to a degree, at least for two hours. Then hopefully when they rewatch it, and show it to their kids years down the road, that they will think about it. I think that’s actually kind of a lovely message about it ultimately. Finn is so admirable and so lovely, and just trying to do the right thing, and kind of getting steamrolled for it, and ultimately he’s got to change those tactics in the end. I think it’s a nice message, and I hope people see it that way.
MB: From the very beginning, Finn is being constantly told that he needs to “man up”, to “grow some balls”, and those expressions that would position him to be this archetypal action hero who is a dick to everyone, but he still saves the day. Instead, what we see is that Finn is capable of being the nice guy and also being the hero. Is that something that really resonated for you in the story?
JR: Absolutely, and I think it did for Sam as well. Sam and I haven’t talked about it terribly much, but that monologue at the end was sort of adjusted in a very specific way. I think we are good men, or at least consider ourselves good people, but are angry for different reasons. There’s probably a bit of anger that comes with being a good person inherently and then sort of being taken advantage of for it. For him to express those feelings so passionately is cathartic and really impactful, and yeah it meant something very personal to me and to Sam as well for his own reasons.
MB: Every character in this film has such a distinct and specific personality, whether it’s Sam or Michaela Watkins or Sarah Burns, and it brings such an energy to the movie where it’s constantly shifting the perspective that you’re focusing on in any given scene. Was that a thrill for you as a filmmaker to have so many different personalities to play with?
JR: It’s a dream. I’m an actor and a movie lover first, and it was so fun to cross pollinate actors and performers from different parts of the entertainment community. We have people from scathingly funny TV, from off-Broadway and Broadway plays, from Spider-Man level movies, from the Coen brothers camp. They all have different styles, and for all of them to come together, work so well, and find each other so funny and lovely, it was such a joy.
There’s this whole book about communicating with actors, and what I did was call everyone before we even got to set and ask them how they like to work. Maybe someone wants me to just bugger off, and someone else wants to be told what to do, one wants to be directed a bit more than the other. Through and through, I would just ask them to tell me what they want and say that I wasn’t going to be a dick because I just wanted them to answer me honestly. You’ve got to have the “no dicks” policy on a set, and I was working with people who were so talented and so much fun, and they were all getting along. No one was retreating from the rest of the cast, and it made for a fantastic talent soup.
MB: The ensemble nature of the film is such a great touch, placing it in the realm of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Did you always want to make one of those kinds of films with the expansive cast of characters and a crime to solve?
JR: I was always more in the Clue park, or even like a Hot Fuzz than a Poirot kind of guy. I think for me, if I can just work with great character actors and have some genre elements informing it then I’m happy, especially if you’ve got some kind of cosmic, otherworldly force. I think that’s largely informed by my love for Spielberg and growing up on everything I did as a kid. There was always some element in those films of some kind of force or creature or questionable thing and that allows the performances to shift on that spectrum as well. You get to play subdued, but then you have a moment where you’ve got a great performer playing totally manic, and then they can get really dark. I think that’s why it’s so appealing to me, and why I love to stay in that genre space.
MB: The Hot Fuzz mention is an interesting one because your work definitely does call Edgar Wright to mind. As he does, your films are paying reverence to these genre films and the iconography of them, but you’re also subverting these old tropes that are maybe a bit antiquated these days. You’re not satirizing anything, but you’re finding a new twist.
JR: I love to do that because I’m sort of sick of calling upon the same references that we all do. That’s why it’s so great to have a movie like A Quiet Place where once in a while a movie comes along and creates this sea change that impacts things in a major way. Ari Aster did the same thing with back-to-back films. What I love is an assault on the senses without making you think about the assault. If I can make you genuinely laugh, and then legitimately scared, then I’ve succeeded.
MB: Speaking of back-to-back movies, you’ve now done two films in a row that are these wintery horror comedies in secluded locations. Are you setting up your own particular niche here?
JR: Yeah, my own Cornetto Trilogy. It’s funny because there’s something that I’m working on that’s sort of “contained”, but turns out to be larger. I think by nature I enjoy those smaller settings because it allows you to explore characters a bit more and there’s not too much bustle going on. There’s an inherent intimacy that allows you to see nuance. We’ll see how that shakes out with my next one. I think as long as I can work in the genre I’ll be happy, regardless of what the story is. First though, maybe Darkman. Maybe someone will let me just go to Darkman. I think we’re ready for a new take on it. We’re ready.
MB: Speaking of Darkman, I was on your Letterboxd and you’ve got some interesting picks on your top movie list.
JR: (laughing) It’s like Little Children, Darkman, Defending Your Life.
MB: You’ve got a very eclectic mix. Is there something on there that you think people don’t give enough appreciation to that you want to give a shoutout for people to maybe give another chance?
JR: Honestly, I think it would be Darkman. That’s a movie that was perceived as trashy and people probably thought it was going to be like a boobs and gore type of thriller, but it wasn’t that at all. It’s a great comic book movie, and it got butchered to a degree. Raimi was able to make it out with a really decent cut. I’ve watched it recently and I think the character is so cool. The fact that Raimi can do so well with applying the style to it while also utilizing the prosthetics and like the Phantom of the Opera level scarring and bizarre horror nature of it all. I think that would be so killer to revisit. That movie should be on more lists. That and Flight of the Navigator.
Werewolves Within releases in theaters on June 25th and on VOD July 2nd.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]