For some reason, the films in the Midnight strand at this year’s Sundance Film Festival haven’t actually been screening at midnight. This is probably good news for Greg Jardin’s ingenious horror-thriller It’s What’s Inside, which, while perfect for a late-night-crowd, has perhaps too much meat on it to digest past the witching hour.
But its complexity is also its allure, and there’s so much going on beneath its many surfaces that it could conceivably become a bona fide cult hit. A Sundance launch is a mixed blessing when it comes to this, so it’s hard to say right now whether It’s What’s Inside has the crossover immediacy of a Blair Witch Project, or the long-haul slow-burn of a Donnie Darko. Whichever way it turns out, this is first-class genre filmmaking and an impressive calling card for everyone involved.
More from Deadline
It begins with what seems at first to be a misdirect, focusing on the floundering relationship between two college sweethearts, Shelby (Brittany O’Grady) and Cyrus (James Morosini). The spark has gone, but Shelby valiantly tries to get things going again by surprising Cyrus with a little light role-play and a fetching long blonde wig. Caught furiously browsing hardcore porn on his laptop, Cyrus tries to bluff his way out of the situation, but the damage is done.
The seriousness of the situation is defused somewhat by the upcoming nuptials of an old college friend, Reuben (Devon Terrell), who is marrying his fiancée, Sophia. In anticipation of that union — referred to as “Reuphia” in the style of “Bennifer” and “Brangelina” — Reuben has invited six of his old college pals to join him for his stag party. En route to the party, hosted in a gothic pile belonging to Reuben’s bohemian artist mother, Shelby flicks through the Instagram belonging to another alumnus, Nikki (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who has since reinvented herself as an influencer, dabbling in wellness, politics and relationship advice. Nikki seems to have it all, and Shelby’s disdain for her is the first sign that the reunion will not go quite the way Reuben is hoping.
Rounding out the guests are Dennis (Gavin Leatherwood), Brooke (Reina Hardesty) and Maya (Nina Bloomgarden), plus the bonus of a surprise appearance by the enigmatic Forbes (David Thompson), the black sheep of the group. True to form, Forbes did not RSVP to the invite, and more strikingly, doesn’t seem to be all that welcome anyway.
However, Forbes has something special in his possession that will ensure that this will be a night to remember: a suitcase. What’s inside? The publicity team would prefer this review to preserve the mystery, so let’s see how that works out. Let’s just say it contains a parlor game, one that involves impersonation and roleplay in a way that, before too long, will take us back to the very beginning and shed new light on what’s really been going on with Cyrus and Shelby. Meanwhile, old allegiances are challenged, and in a very real sense, people turn out not to be who they say they are.
Though there’s a sci-fi bent to the story, the suitcase is really a McGuffin; It’s What’s Inside is a horror-thriller about the human condition, the sort of film you might have the urge to make after dropping acid and watching a double bill of The Return of the Secaucus 7 and Suspiria (which, by the way, is very much a compliment).
Jardin is a big presence as a director, a little over the top with his camera moves perhaps, but hip in his music choices (The Walker Brothers’ “In My Room” and Bruno Nicolai’s theme from The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, to name but two). It’s quite the thrill ride, and sometimes its ambition goes a little too far (assuming this festival print is Jardin’s final cut). But discerning audiences will roll with it and perhaps even go back for more.
Special mention must go here to the versatile cast, who make deceptively light work of a film that might so easily have been incomprehensible. There will, of course, be those who say it absolutely is the dictionary definition of incomprehensible. But if you like your brain to be whipped, tossed and scrambled rather than just lightly pan-fried, ignore them: this is the movie for you.
Title: It’s What’s Inside
Festival (Section): Sundance (Midnight)
Sales agent: CAA
Director-screenwriter: Greg Jardin
Cast: Brittany O’Grady, James Morosini, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Devon Terrell, Gavin Leatherwood, Nina Bloomgarden, Reina Hardesty, David Thompson
Running time: 1 hr 43 min
Best of Deadline