Werewolves Within is the Pipeline Horror Film You Didn’t Know You Needed
“Listening is where love begins. Listening to ourselves and then our neighbors.” This is the quotation that menacingly appears on the opening title card of the 2021 film Werewolves Within (dir. Josh Ruben). Viewers may find themselves chuckling when they see the attribution that follows: Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This blend of the frightening and the humorous sets the stage for the film’s overall tone: A sprinkle of horror. A dash of comedy. And a big heap of biting satire.
After an opening scene in which a man is pulled away to his doom by an unseen creature, set “29.5 days” before the main action (a hint for viewers familiar with the role of the lunar calendar in werewolf lore), we meet park ranger Finn Wheeler. He is listening to motivational cassette tapes in his car while driving to his next post, a small northern forest area where he will be stationed during the construction of a new oil pipeline. As Finn enters the fictional town of Beaverfield, he is greeted by a large “Welcome To” sign, an old-fashioned bed and breakfast, and a fire totem bearing the emblem of Midland Gas.
Midland Gas is arguably one of the central villains of the film. The energy corporation has selected Beaverfield as the site for a new pipeline, but they need buy-in from the locals before they can start construction. While most reviews of Werewolves Within only mention the pipeline in passing—as shorthand for how tensions between right-wing “red-state holdouts” and liberal “hipster incomers from the coasts” began shredding the social fabric of this small Vermont village well before a werewolf enters the mix—we argue that fossil fuel infrastructure has a more consequential role to play in the world of the film and what it has to say about gender, community, and the environment.
As Finn gets acquainted with the townspeople, he finds himself among a rather zany cast of characters. Fellow government worker Cecily, the local mailperson, volunteers to show him around, offering sarcastic commentary along the way. We’ve got quirkily crass and dysfunctional couple Gwen and Marcus, blue-collar workers intent on cashing in on the pipeline payout from Midland Gas. Also interested in the “pipeline check” is Trish, a religious, terrier-loving, and tightly-wound conservative woman who tends to chant familiar political slogans (“Lock her up!”), ignores her philandering husband’s habit of hitting on every woman he sees, and is desperate to open a craft store. Trish is wary of liberal newcomers, including Devon and Joaquim—a wealthy gay couple who recently moved to Beaverfield and wasted no time gentrifying the place up with a yoga studio. In true NIMBY fashion, Devon and Joaquim won’t support the pipeline (much to Trish’s rage) because it would ruin the picturesque views they came to rural Vermont to enjoy. Chaos ensues when a blizzard forces them all to take shelter together at a local bed and breakfast where Finn and two out-of-towners have rented rooms. And only some that chaos has to do with the razor-clawed creature skulking around (as well as inside!?!) the house.
At the heart of the town’s conflict is Sam Parker, a bigwig energy executive who is paying Beaverfield a visit to stoke the flames of pro-pipeline sentiment. With his oversized truck, personal arsenal, and “good ol’ boy” charisma, Parker cuts a locked-and-loaded hypermasculine figure that’s absurd enough to be funny. But although we two (re)viewers laughed aloud when Cecily described the flaming Midland Gas tower as “Parker’s phallic fire totem,” there’s a grim political reality under the joke.
Parker embodies an increasingly visible kind of “oil-soaked and coal-dusted” white conservative North American masculinity—what Cara Daggett calls “petro-masculinity”—marked by a volatile cocktail of intensive fossil fuel consumption, misogyny, and authoritarianism. Viewers might recognize this far-right “petro-masculine” figure from the Freedom Convoy that occupied Ottawa, Canada in January and February 2022 or the “rolling Trump rallies” in the U.S., where big trucks and firearms, patriarchal gender values, deep political resentments, and rampant climate denialism are points of pride. As Daggett argues, the practice of extracting and burning fossil fuels has been so central to the development of hegemonic white masculinity, American exceptionalism, and a conservative vision of the “good life” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that any “challenges to fossil-fuelled systems, and…fossil-soaked lifestyles, become interpreted as challenges to white patriarchal rule” with “perilous” and often violent results. It’s no coincidence that Parker rolls into town and plants his “phallic fire totem” in the village square, reminding both Beaverfield locals and moviegoers that his “petro-masculine” presence is an ever-present threat. Later in the film, we learn that where the pipeline goes, murders follow (just as they do in real life). And unlike the fur-covered monster prowling around the village at night, Midland Gas won’t need a full moon to do its damage.
While the film doesn’t make a particularly complicated commentary on the entanglements of gender, whiteness, and the politics of extraction, it’s interesting to contrast Sam Parker with Emerson Flint, an antiestablishment hermit who lives in a remote cabin on the outskirts of town. Emerson brings a different kind of toxic masculinity into the mix, one more reminiscent of the Bundy brothers (the cattle ranchers who led a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016) than Big Oil. With his mountain-man sartorial sense, his creepy fondness for taxidermy and weaponry, his deadpan antigovernment stance (he refuses to recognize Finn’s authority as a forest ranger), and the ominous “Trespass and Die” sign marking his land, Emerson could be an obvious suspect for the murders. But it’s quickly clear that he doesn’t share Parker’s “oil-soaked” form of white masculinity or pose the kind of danger that viewers might expect. (Without giving too much away, we’ll just say that he eventually warms up to Finn’s bumbling and emphatically nonassertive Mister Rogers–style approach.) Whereas Parker is a veritable outsider with a purely economic interest in Midland Gas’s land grab, Emerson belongs to the community. In the world of the film, this distinction matters.
Sam Parker does have an archnemesis, though: Dr. Jane Ellis, referred to by fellow inn guests as “the environmentalist on the second floor.” Dr. Ellis is temporarily stationed in Beaverfield to wrap up the research for the pipeline project’s environmental impact statement. She is the film’s stand-in for the science community, and her opposition to the pipeline seems to be based on the findings of the EIS, not any particular interest in the local community (do you see where we’re going with this?). While Dr. Ellis is something of a caricature by design—no-nonsense, fixated on her work to the point of being antisocial, and casually toting around high-tech equipment that can analyze forensic samples in minutes with visual renderings pulled straight from the 1980s cyber-thriller playbook—her character offers an important counterpoint to oil exec Parker in the constellation of public and industry opinion about the pipeline that the film sketches. As the fateful night of the storm unfolds, Dr. Ellis is set to task to find out what kind of creature is wreaking havoc using a hair sample she pulled from one of the crime scenes. During their “good old-fashioned sleepover, with guns,” the townspeople engage in a spirited debate about whether the mystery can best be solved by science or folklore. Before the night is over, Parker and Ellis come head-to-head (in a strangely off-camera scene) with bloody results.
With tensions running high as the body count ticks upward, innkeeper Jeanine reveals herself to be the film’s true pipeline horror hero. Unlike Sam Parker or Dr. Ellis, she didn’t just fly in from corporate HQ or a university to attend to pipeline business, convince the locals one way or another, and get out of Dodge—she is the local. Not only that, but her inn is a site of hospitality where lifelong residents, newcomers, and short- and long-term visitors alike can make themselves at home. Jeanine offers shelter to both the environmentalist and the oil exec, even though she takes issue with Parker’s plan. “They tried to frack up here and they lost,” she explains at one point, giving a small but meaningful glimpse into Beaverfield’s history of community resistance to extractive capitalism. In the world outside the film, Vermont banned fracking at the state level in 2012; because it lies outside the Utica and Marcellus shale formations, there aren’t extensive natural gas resources that would make hydraulic fracturing a profitable endeavor, so the ban was largely a symbolic gesture. In the world of the film, though, what matters is how Jeanine draws attention to what happens when outside agents try to force their own approaches to extractive infrastructures on Beaverfield’s residents: the town successfully fought back once, and (or so Jeanine seems to suggest) they’ll do so again.
Unlike in Trish’s worldview, this community-based ethos is not about fearing newcomers as a generalized reflex or a thinly veiled cover for xenophobia, racism, or homophobia. The problem with outsiders like Parker and Dr. Ellis is not that they inherently don’t belong or that they don’t have the “correct” political viewpoints but that they don’t understand what’s truly at stake for the locals in something like the pipeline project. Through Jeanine, the film makes an unexpected grassroots, community-based argument about what happens when community members rally against a meaningful threat to their lives and livelihoods, taking into account economic, health, and other concerns—not just profit motive or even scientific conclusions. Here, the opposite of extraction is community, and neighborliness does the environmental work.
So there you have it. Ultimately, the townspeople’s festering political resentments and unneighborly fear of the other are exacerbated and laid bare by the intrusion of the pipeline into their community long before the werewolf showed up. Without spoiling any of the major twists, the film returns repeatedly to the theme that everyone is the werewolf—“Werewolves Within,” get it? Swinging between self-aware sincerity that never takes itself too seriously and a campy kind of horror-lampoon that is perhaps not as politically complex as some viewers might wish, Werewolves Within is a fun romp through some all-too-real problems that even a quiet little snow-capped village can’t escape under extractive capitalism. A well-timed shotgun blast can take down a lycanthrope, but a pipeline (and all that it promises and threatens) is an altogether different kind of monster that requires a different approach, one that is community-driven. While the truisms of Mister Rogers are insufficient to solve all our political and environmental problems, perhaps there is something to be said for listening to our neighbors.
Featured image: The madcap cast of townspeople hide from an unknown monstrous threat in Werewolves Within. Promotional film still courtesy IFC Films, 2021.
Addie Hopes is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. She’s a former managing editor of Edge Effects (2018–2019; 2020–2021), a Fiction editor at The Hopper, and an editor with NiCHE. Her previous contributions as an Edge Effects author include “Caring at a Distance,”“Toxic Bodies and the Wetter, Better Future of Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Ode to the Madison Lake Monster.” Twitter. Contact.
Richelle Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic+ at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. A former managing editor of Edge Effects (2021–22), she is currently the Public Narratives Fellow at Midwest Environmental Advocates for the academic year 2022–23. Her previous contributions to Edge Effects include “Nine Horror Films on Haunted Places and Contested Spaces” and “Gentrification is Coming for the Internet.” Twitter. Contact.