Have you heard of a niche picture? Basically, a niche film is a product that’s made to satisfy what could arguably be a somewhat limited demand or reasonably specific audience. By definition, a niche is one piece of the whole pie. So, when making a niche film, you’re not angling for the whole pie of the possible viewing audience but only your individual piece – only those interested in your particular subject – so targeting that piece becomes your strategy. Which piece is bigger? Which piece offers the best return on investment? Though I’ve read some academics who classify an independent film as a niche property, I’ve always pushed back against that because my experience has shown that more folks are interested in good drama as opposed to whether or not a motion picture was made in the studio system or not.
At its core, a niche picture is one made to solely capitalize on the interests of sub-section of the total moviegoing audience. For me, workable examples are often identified as novel adaptations: if a book becomes a bestseller, why not adapt it into a film? Certainly, Twilight (2008) and The Hunger Games (2012) have shown the potential of mining the Young Adult book genre for profits, and Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings proved that there’s big money mined from Middle-earth. Another example (albeit smaller in scope) is the slasher movie: while these flicks are generally classified as horror, their respective audiences tend to be a subset of the wider horror audience as not everyone appreciates their thrills and chills in so conventional a fashion.
Still another niche market are video game adaptations.
As these works have only been around for a few decades, I suspect the data on their box office potential remains a bit suspect, but Hollywood mathematicians have been fudging data since before you and I were born! Consequently, producers have been more easily lured with the promise of big returns on a small investment, thinking that everyone who has played a certain game will likely want to see it brought to life on the silver screen. Were that truly the case, I suspect even 1972’s Pong would’ve been delivered in light and shadows – likely starring Russell Crowe facing off against Nicole Kidman with direction from Steven Spielberg – but I’m still waiting for that project to materialize.
In the meantime, Ubisoft has ponied up a little something something called Werewolves Within – an adaptation of a 2016 virtual reality game of the same name – and I’m delighted to give you my thoughts on it after the break.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessarily solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“New forest ranger Finn arrives in the snowy hamlet of Beaverfield to find the townsfolks divided by a proposed gas pipeline. He befriends mail carrier Cecily who gives him a tour and introduces him to the quirky cast of neighbors. When a snowstorm cuts the power and traps the residents inside the local inn, it falls on Finn and Cecily to try to keep the peace and uncover the truth behind a mysterious creature that has begun terrorizing the community.”
Oh, the struggles of the monster movie!
There used to be a time and a place for them. Back in the days of the Universal Monster Movie Universe – very, very close to the dawn of motion pictures – audiences flocked to them. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Mummy. The Werewolf. Alas, the phenomenon didn’t last but a decade and one-half, until it was miraculously revived when mildly reinvented for a cinematic mash-up with the popular comedy act of the era, Abbott and Costello. This re-introduction brought the monster movie back to life, true, and it continued to evolve in ways that pushed the boundaries of what was possible for the next generation or two.
Somewhere along the way, the monsters waned again in admiration. These things that go bump in the night went out of style, but filmmakers have tried over and over again to bring them back to life in any number of ways. Big budget makeovers – like The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) – certainly added a bit of studio gloss to the equation, but their successes have been the exception and not the rule. In fact, box office mega-star Tom Cruise’s The Mummy (2017) may very well have put this beloved phenomenon back to sleep for tentpole efforts, leaving the properties ripe for smaller(ish), quieter, independent efforts to pick up the baton and run with it.
Enter Werewolves Within (2021), a $6.5 million budgeted ensemble that was released in the summer of 2021.
Again, don’t get me wrong: as a critic, I make a concerted effort to evaluate what any storyteller provides as a finished product instead of rushing down that rabbit hole of what could’ve/should’ve/would’ve been, but I can’t help asking “Shouldn’t there be more werewolf in a Werewolves Within movie?” The usual trickery about hiding the beast for the big reveal offers shockingly little payoff here; when we’re finally treated to the creature of the title, it is almost laughable … and those of us who tuned in taking our monsters seriously are apt to be disappointed.
So if your indie feature doesn’t play to the usual themes indie viewers expect AND your monster movie serves up so little monster as if to insult the monster lovers, then what audience is your movie catering to exactly?
Therein lies the problem of Werewolves Within. It’s a film without a crowd, so it’s no wonder this one came and went from theaters as fast as it did.
This isn’t to say that I, personally, had no fun with the flick because I did. The funny and affable Sam Richardson makes great mileage here in what I think may be his very first leading role; his nice guy ranger Finn Wheeler fits in perfectly with the material provided, and I rooted for him to excel both professionally and personally just as he was put through the comic pacing. The fetching Milana Vayntrub gives a wonderful performance as the quirky postal worker Cecily Moore; she balances girl-next-door charm and effervescent flippancy here like a true master of her craft, and her work here ought to open doors for more roles (if any execs with brains are watching). And this handful of local yokels embrace their respective eccentricities with increasing delight, even up to the point of shaking off their scripted mortal coils. This is smart, character-driven comedy; and it works.
Still, I can’t shake the fact that what brings me to a werewolf movie is, alas, the seminal howler … and Werewolves Within was strikingly deficient in that respect. A bit of a miss.
Werewolves Within (2021) is produced by Ubisoft Film and Television, Ubisoft, Vanishing Angle. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled by IFC Films. As for the technical specifications? The film looks and sounds fabulous from start-to-finish. As for the special features? Wow. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. An insulting miss.
Recommended. As imperfect as Werewolves Within is, there are enough good, solid laughs in here to divert your attention away from the missing monster moments; and I suspect the cast and crew had a lot of fun putting this particular mystery together for audiences. Though I’ll always be disappointed with the payoff, I can appreciate the small world charm of increasingly bizarre characters just trying to get out alive … and this cast delivers with the material provided. I just wanted more creature. Does that make me … a monster?
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at IFC Films provided me with a Blu-ray disc of Werewolves Within by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.