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It Lives Inside

A fresh and unique cultural canvas feels wasted on rote horror beats.

This article was originally published on Film Yap.

In the midst of watching It Lives Inside, an unexpectedly pulpy third-act reveal reminded me of the absolute blast of a grotesque finale in last year’s shockingly fun Smile: a climactic confrontation so over-the-top, so grim and silly in one stroke that it added at least half-a-star to my review.

But as my mind returned to the film I was actually watching, the latest horror venture from NEON and feature directorial debut of Bishal Dutta, this reminder served only to highlight how drab this climax was by comparison, and how uninvested I was in the emotional underpinnings that preceded it.

Samidha (Megan Suri), or “Sam,” as she prefers to be called, just wants to fit in at school. Her East Indian heritage, which is thrust on her by her mother Poorna (Neeru Bajwa) on a daily basis, feels like an obstacle in the way of this goal. She’s caught the eye of a cute boy, Russ (Gage Marsh), and just wants to appear normal.

This is made difficult by her tie to Tamira, a fellow Indian-American student and the de facto school weirdo. Sam and Tamira were best friends growing up, but after the death of another Indian boy in the neighborhood, they grew apart.

But now, Tamira isn’t quite herself. She’s constantly disheveled and barely speaks to anyone. She carries around a glass jar filled with indiscernible blackness, tapping it with her fingernail and staring out from behind her veil of messy dark hair, wide-eyed and seemingly terrified of what could be around any corner. Sam wishes she could ignore her, but the two are linked, and everyone knows it.

Confronting Sam in the gym locker room, Tamira tells her there’s something dangerous living in her jar, and that she’s keep it at bay by feeding it raw meat. Worried about how this conversation looks to all the other girls in the locker room, Sam dismisses Tamira’s concerns and knocks the jar to the floor, breaking it. Shortly thereafter, Tamira goes missing.

During the first half of the film, Dutta does a good job balancing exposition of Indian traditions and school drama with notes of supernatural horror. At home, Sam resists her mother’s attempts to make her engage with her cultural roots, while her father defends her right to have distance and live her own lifestyle. This conflict of parenting makes for a turbulent home life, which only further drives Sam to seek social acceptance at school.

Of course, the Tamira situation makes that hard too—harder still when Sam starts hearing and dreaming things she can’t explain. Things that become more real and more terrifying as the days pass. Something is stalking her, and she can’t help but feel like she’s on borrowed time. After finding a journal from the Indian boy who had previously died, she thinks it might be a demon that was told of in stories growing up.

The way this threat manifests throughout the bulk of the film is as an invisible monster. People in Sam’s life are brutally attacked and killed by an unseen force, and Sam hears growls and animalistic clicks all around her. She sees eyes watching her in the darkness.

There are some decent bits of suspense peppered throughout the middle of the film. Nothing ground-breaking, by any means, but the tricks of light with the monster’s reflective eyes help build tension and confuse Sam’s sanity. Megan Suri offers a strong performance as an everygirl just trying to get by in life amidst supernatural terrors.

Unfortunately, the best the film gets is somewhere around the middle, when spooky visions haunt Sam’s everyday life. The bolder the monster gets in its attacks, the less interesting the scares become. Simultaneously, we don’t get much development between Sam and her family or friends beyond the midpoint. Tamira is alleged to be her closest friend, despite their distance as of late, and yet we know nothing about their friendship.

The late second act into the third is a cascade of exposition about Hindu demonology and religious rites, which perhaps would’ve been more appreciated had it been naturally integrated into Sam’s social and familial circumstances earlier in the film. It is loosely established that Sam’s mother wants her to engage in their Hindu traditions because she truly believes in them and worries about Sam straying from the protective power of faith, but it’s not directly tied into the danger Sam faces until way too close to the end.

Amidst the lore-dumping we’re offered scares of increasing familiarity and diminishing power. I can appreciate that an invisible monster can be limiting, in terms of visual flair, but that was a choice made by the filmmakers, and more creativity with regard to how the demon stalks its victims would have gone along way. Somehow, despite literally not having a monster to showcase in these sequences, the skittish editing still obscures our view of what is happening when it strikes.

This brings us back to that disappointing final reveal. We do get to see a more corporeal representation of the thing that is hunting Sam, and while I appreciate a reliance on practical effects in a genre too eager to rely on digital, the monster we get just can’t live up to the possibilities dreamed up in the mind. Unlike the finale of Smile, wherein the physical embodiment of the horrors plaguing its protagonist are more disgusting and eldritch than anyone watching that movie could have possibly anticipated, the demon in It Lives Inside feels like a pale cosplay of the powerful beast teased during the invisible attack sequences.

And maybe this is just me, but establishing your monster as a “demon” implies a level of trickery, malice, and intellect. This is certainly reflected in the ways it terrorizes Sam’s mind throughout the middle of the film. But once we’ve seen the creature, it feels more like a brute animal starving for its next meal than a cunning devil out to “tenderize the soul.”

In all, It Lives Inside is not a bad horror movie. In fact, I actually appreciate the change of cultural scenery, as I can’t recall a Western horror production centered around Indian traditions or Hindu mythology. I’d love to see more of that in the genre; cultures underexposed in the West being employed (particularly by filmmakers from that culture) as canvases on which to paint compelling tales of terror, the way Christian demonology has long been a popular subject of the horror genre. And the respect shown for the foundational culture here goes a long way.

Unfortunately, beyond the intriguing premise and fresh cultural backdrop, there just isn’t much here to wow horror fans or grip casual moviegoers. The scares are mundane and conventional, the characters are thin and their relationships tenuous, and the climax of it all disappoints. There’s enough there to carry you from one beat to the next, but not enough to satisfy in the end.

Between the unique premise and the interest in practical effects, there’s absolutely potential here. Perhaps Dutta can dig deeper into his own brand of horror and focus on bringing new visual and emotional frights to the screen in the future. I’ll be on the lookout for what he does next.

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Wishes he could forego sleep to watch more movies. Besides co-hosting Odd Trilogies and writing reviews, Andy builds Gundam models, loves on his three cats, and spends way too much time managing his Plex server. You can follow his movie-watching habits on Letterboxd.

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