Horror wears a terrifying new face in It Lives Inside, the first feature from writer-director Bishal Dutta, as well as (as the poster and trailers will emphatically tell you) several of the producers of Get Out. Taking the extremely familiar formula of a group of teenagers being stalked by a sadistic supernatural force, Dutta breathes new life into this concept by Babadooking it up. Instead of grief being manifested into a monster, an Indian American teenager’s assimilation spawns a new horror icon in the making.
This isn’t to say that It Lives Inside is a bloodless “elevated horror” exercise, where its metaphors overtake the scary stuff. The monster might be symbolic, but its teeth sure aren’t. The bold debut is closer in execution to Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street than it is to Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (For the record, both great films —just very different in how they approach their subjects.)
Dutta keeps his movie resoundingly accessible, putting a relatable coming-of-age story at its heart — only to then gnaw at that pumping organ with a big gnarly set of chompers every chance he gets.
What is It Lives Inside about?
Samidha (Megan Suri from Never Have I Ever) is a second-generation American, born of Indian immigrants, who live in the sort of small suburban town you’ll recognize from nearly any early Spielberg movie. Going by Sam, she finds herself straddling two worlds: Her mother Poorna (Neeru Bajwa) is resentful, watching her daughter assimilate away from their Indian heritage, while her recently acquired popular (white) friends treat Sam’s ability to speak Hindi as a parlor trick.
And for every boy who bats his pretty eyelashes in sympathy – in this case, he’s named Russ (Gage Marsh), and his eyelashes are very pretty indeed – there’s an ex-friend who’s not quite so understanding. Specifically, Sam’s former bestie Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) quickly comes to represent all of the othering from which Sam is running. Tamira, also Indian American, is an outcast. And the sting of that has only gotten worse since Sam started ignoring her. It certainly doesn’t help that Tamira is suddenly carrying a blackened mason jar everywhere, treating it like an infant even though it looks more like an explosive device.
So when Sam, in a Carrie-like act of betrayal in the girl’s locker room, severs the cord between herself and Tamira for good, the evil nipping at It Lives Inside’s edges finally explodes.
Enter the Pishach, a Hindu devourer of souls and flesh that finds its way into our world on waves of bad mojo. And these assimilating Indian American kids – awash in the terrible twosome of guilt over turning their backs on their heritage – turn out to be the perfect feast for this beast.
It Lives Inside proves there’s nothing more dangerous than a teenager trying to fit in.
The horror kicks into high, horrible gear once Sam pushes herself too far in fitting in, and Dutta proves to have some mad skills in delivering that horror. In theory, there’s nothing too groundbreaking here. A shadowy figure hiding in a closet is not exactly revelatory. But in practice, the director wrings tremendous tension out of these old standards. That shadowy figure in the closet, with its sinisterly beady eyes and weird hiccuping sounds, will 100% make your skin crawl. Dutta’s decision to keep the monster mostly invisible for the film’s first two-thirds actually turns out very much in the film’s favor.
Specifically, there’s a scene in which Sam’s favorite teacher (played by Get Out scene-stealer Betty Gabriel) senses something standing behind her. So she reaches, and reaches, and reaches, into the air, closer and closer to something she couldn’t imagine even in her wildest nightmares — until we all feel like our hearts might explode.
It is legitimately terrifying thanks to Dutta’s construction (and Gabriel’s performance) of it. And don’t get me started on the swing-set scene, which contains an all-too-infrequent example of how a fresh imagination can use CG for good, with what might be The Image of horror this year.
When Dutta lets his monster get to work, it’s well and truly monstrous.
Not knowing is so much worse than knowing.
Dutta knows and shows that what frightens us the most is the unknown. The darkness in the closet; the sound from under the bed. These are the wells that horror movies tap into time and time again, and the smarter ones dig up brand-new ways to exploit those old fears. New twists on the ancient formulas harken back to our campfire days when the shadows on the cave walls would spring up to terrifying life.
Take for example the late William Friedkin unleashing The Exorcist on the world in 1973 – all that exorcism jazz was pretty new to American audiences. It worked because we hadn’t seen it before – certainly not like that! And we had no idea in the pea-soup-hell what was coming next. In the 50 years since The Exorcist however, we’ve all seen so many possessed people puking on themselves that it’s very much lost its bite. (And the very best of luck to David Gordon Green on that front.)
With all due respect to Vera Farmiga kissing her cross for the 10,000th time in the Conjuring films, there’ve been far more frights unearthed recently from Judaism (the Dybbuk in movies like Keith Thomas’s The Vigil and Marcin Wrona’s Demon and even the opening scene of the Coens’ A Serious Man) and Islam (Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow and David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s The Djinn) than any movies recently cobbled together from Christianity’s centuries-long reign of terror. (Excepting Rose Glass’s 2019 masterpiece Saint Maud, of course.) Heck, Ari Aster even managed to scare the bejesus out of us with Swedes of all people, thanks to the day-glo pagan rituals of Midsommar.
It Lives Inside is here to finally give a Hindu monster its due in American movies, and that it does. But Dutta isn’t content to just throw a big scary Pishach at us and call it a day. With precision, he turns it into a vehicle to give awesome, awful life to the anxieties with which immigrants and their second-generation children have to constantly deal. This frightening film shows how when coming to a new country and piecing together a life, the patchwork of the past must be included and not repressed, or it’ll be to everybody’s peril.
Sam’s journey, should she choose to accept it, becomes one of finding her heritage and making it work for her, not against her.
Monsters are universal, even when they’re not Universal Monsters.
The thrill here is twofold. Indian Americans get one of their stories told and told well, and the rest of us get tossed into the deep end of our ignorance, disoriented by all of this new information in the best of ways. Speaking as a member of the latter, there’s something thrilling in the process of being presented with new rules and rituals and having to learn on the go, with one big bad toothy motherfucker nipping at my heels. It’s the best way to learn about other cultures! None of that staid Sunday School boredom – you’re invested immediately, feeling the breath of the latest hottest local demon blowing down the back of your neck.
Still, there are moments when the film gets kind of clunky, burdened by thudding exposition drops between scares, and moments a little too bewildering for their own good. Expecting us to catch up is one thing. However, keeping the monster’s capabilities devotedly vague to justify vagaries in the plot is quite another. Dutta still has room to grow as a storyteller. But like Get Out and The Vigil and Under the Shadow, what It Lives Inside is relentlessly effective in delivering fresh horror that cuts to the core.
The Pishach feeds on fears we all share. What a twisted delight that It Lives Inside proves screaming our throats raw together, giving life to those terrible fears, is still one of this world’s greatest communal pleasures.
It Lives Inside was reviewed out of Fantasia International Film Festival 2023. The film will open in theaters in the U.S. on Sept. 22.