Watching director and co-writer Bishal Dutta’s admirable, yet lacking debut feature It Lives Inside is like observing an ongoing war between a rich, original idea and a rote, plodding, and not particularly frightening genre picture. A teen horror steeped in Indian-American heritage and fears of fitting into predominantly white suburban culture, It Lives Inside has a refreshing concept that remains intriguing on a conceptual level throughout, but Dutta’s work is held back by a cliched style and mindset that makes it come across as just another run-of-the-mill chiller about an inescapable curse. It takes an entity that could’ve been an original horror movie villain and turns it into just another monster of the week.
Underrated performer Megan Suri (Never Have I Ever, Missing) gets a well deserved and handled leading role as Samida, the teenage daughter of a traditionalist Desi mom (Neeru Bajwa) and a hard working, but more culturally assimilated dad (Vik Sahay). Sam is at the age where her mother’s desires to retain elements of their Indian culture (traditional celebrations, use of the Hindi language at home) are running counter to the young woman’s desires to fit in at her high school. Sam’s desire to be more like the cool kids led to a distancing from her childhood best friend and fellow child of immigrant parents, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan). Something is clearly bothering Tamira. She shows up to school late and unkempt, often muttering under her breath and toting around a filthy looking mason jar. One day, out of desperation, Tamira turns to Sam for help, telling her former friend that there is a demon trapped inside the jar and she needs to get rid of it. Sam doesn’t believe Tamira and accidentally breaks the jar during an argument, unleashing the entity inside. Almost immediately, Tamira disappears, taken prisoner by the demon. Now starting to believe Tamira and finding herself similarly haunted, Sam becomes determined to get her friend back from a dark, dream-like netherworld before it’s too late.
The set-up from Dutta and co-writer Ashish Mehta is intriguing and promising at the outset, ripe with the potential to work on a number of different levels. From a young adult perspective, It Lives Inside shows the pressures of trying to fit in and slowly losing pieces of what makes someone unique in the process. That combines well with the culturally specific pressures Sam faces at home and at school. The family dynamic at the heart of It Lives Inside is Dutta’s strongest and most engaging element, with Suri and Bajwa depicting their rocky daughter-mother relationship realistically and without too much melodrama. And the idea of a horror film that draws upon Hindu mythology provides It Lives Inside with a unique, culturally inclusive hook to wrap the story around.
But all of those good intentions don’t add up to much as It Lives Inside plods its way through standard looking and sounding sequences laden with well worn tropes that could be found in other lacklustre horror flicks that have no cultural perspective whatsoever. While there are some brief passages where Dutta proves to be a student of horror cinema – nicely employing some gothic elements and offering up shots that are reminiscent of Craven and Carpenter in their best moments – it becomes clear that the filmmaker and the project in general is going to lean more heavily on convention and cliche to get to the finish line instead of breaking new ground. It’s a film that plays things too safe to make much of a lasting impact.
Dutta doesn’t meet a jump scare he didn’t like, which would be fine if the narrative and supposedly harrowing scenarios didn’t have an obvious layer of predictability to them. They also aren’t particularly well directed jump scares, at that. Eventually, the plot starts to involve not only that one spooky, abandoned house with a tragic history every town in these movies seems to have, but also an Upside-Down-ish styled netherworld where everything is so bathed in bright red light that it almost becomes impossible to see anything. (Don’t worry, though. For balance, there are plenty of sequences shot in darkness so murky that those can also be hard to make out at times.) The edits are fast to a fault, and It Lives Inside is so cartoonishly loud – even in moments that don’t call for tons of sound effects – that I began wondering if the foley department made a lot of overtime pay on the project.
Perhaps most damningly for a horror film, outside of a bit involving a swing set and a particularly effective nightmare sequence, It Lives Inside is about as frightening as an episode of Goosebumps from the nineties. Throughout the film, I was wishing that things would either be scarier or smarter, and ultimately neither comes to pass. The mythology that ties things together is saddled with an arbitrary set of horror movie rules and glossed over quickly in a bid to get back to the main action, and the grand finale is a visual and dramatic mess by almost any filmmaking standard. (Notably, the coda that ends the film is pretty interesting to think about, even if it feels unearned in light of everything that came before it.) It’s a bummer that a film about cultural assimilation and the immigrant experience just ends up being another low aiming, forgettable genre effort.
It Lives Inside opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, September 22, 2023.
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