REVIEW: It Lives Inside (2023, dir. Bishal Dutta)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 99 mins

UK Distributor: Vertigo Releasing

UK Release Date: 20 October 2023

WHO’S IN IT LIVES INSIDE?

Megan Suri, Neeru Bajwa, Mohana Krishnan, Vik Sahay, Gage Marsh, Beatrice Kitsos, Betty Gabriel

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Bishal Dutta (director, writer), Ashish Mehta (writer), Raymond Mansfield and Sean McKittrick (producers), Wesley Hughes (composer), Matthew Lynn (cinematographer), Jack Price (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

An Indian-American teen (Suri) confronts a dark supernatural force that has taken her friend (Krishnan)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON IT LIVES INSIDE?

Between Polite Society and now It Lives Inside, it’s interesting to see more and more films with predominantly South Asian casts and crew members explore a wider variety of genres within Western cinema, from wuxia-infused action to full-on supernatural horror. The latter very much describes director and co-writer Bishal Dutta’s debut feature, in the sense that it follows the familiar template almost down to the letter, to where it somewhat frustratingly restricts the ambition of an otherwise intriguing and occasionally creepy film.

The film follows Sam (Megan Suri), an Indian-American teenager who tends to shun her cultural heritage in order to fit in with the popular – and mostly white – kids at school. In the process, she’s alienated herself from her mother Poona (Neeru Bajwa), who is so steeped in Indian tradition that she even refuses to speak anything other than Hindi, and her former best friend Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), a constantly dishevelled oddity who carries around with her a blackened-out Mason jar. When a confrontation with the latter leads to Sam impulsively destroying said jar, she unwittingly unleashes the evil that lives inside of it: a monstrous flesh-eating invisible demon known as the Pishacha, which promptly abducts Tamira and messes around with Sam’s psyche as well, forcing her to confront and possibly even embrace her heritage in order to defeat it and rescue her former friend.

Steeped in Hindu mythology and folklore – a bit of research shows that the Pishacha is an actual figure within several Dharmic religions, wherein it is widely considered to be a personification of evil – It Lives Inside certainly has a lot of foundations to build upon. Dutta, who like his protagonist is also a first generation immigrant born to Indian parents, clearly draws from personal experience as to what it is like to grow up in a society that doesn’t always share the same beliefs or traditions, and through a horror lens he manages to encapsulate the fear of such traditions creeping their way back into one’s life, despite efforts to conceal or even neglect them entirely. The filmmaker uses the genre to show some of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Indian-American experience, such as Sam – impressively played by an expressive Megan Suri – being treated like an accessory for her white friends who have her do their homework and then record her saying things in Hindi for their own amusement, while also not shying away from how damaging it can be for those who either reject or overly embrace their heritage, with or without a Pishacha in the picture.

In many ways, there’s enough material to make It Lives Inside a pretty strong blend of horror and social commentary which, like Get Out before it, could potentially open up numerous conversations about the nature of cultural heritage in our flawed society. However, the film hardly ever becomes as smart or even as horrifying as Get Out, as it opts to function within a recognisable horror movie structure that sidelines many of its thoughtful themes for a collection of fairly standard scares. It’s not as though Dutta executes them poorly, for along with cinematographer Matthew Lynn he does manage to make some shots rather creepy, and there is a considerable lean towards practical effects in some parts which are effective in their own way. But, by sticking to a reliable formula that’s so often used in these types of horror films, it’s easy to see which scares are coming, and when, which eases the tension more than it should.

It’s also one of those films where you can tell that they wanted to do more with this concept, but couldn’t because they didn’t have the budget to go any further. So, presumably to cut costs, you’ll have scenes where characters are throttled about (often in quick shots with some questionable CGI filters) by an invisible force, perhaps because they didn’t want to pay to use the practical monster effects more than they thought they had to. There are also parts where it will just reuse sets rather than build afresh, which to an extent films of all budgets tend to do anyway, but here it’s much more noticeable, especially when you start to recognise certain locations even though they’re supposed to be completely different at that point.

Most notably, the limited budget means that the school that Sam goes to seems to have just one teacher among its faculty, that being Joyce as played by Betty Gabriel (funnily enough, an actual holdover from Get Out). Joyce appears to be the only adult working at this school – which is apparently big enough to have its own American football team – to where, even when certain events happen and cops are called as a result, it is just her dealing with everything, with no principal or even security in sight. She also appears to actually live in the school, since she is shown in pivotal scenes to work there late at night with nobody else around, which once again I assume is because the production couldn’t afford to create a new set for her actual house, and decided to have her effectively live there for no other reason than sheer convenience (and for some unintended hilarity on my end).

While It Lives Inside is overall not a bad film, it is one that limits itself far too much in its originality and its budget to make as strong an impact as it might like.

SO, TO SUM UP…

It Lives Inside is a horror with intriguing concepts and themes, and occasionally brings a neatly creepy atmosphere to the proceedings, but it sets itself unnecessary restrictions by following a familiar template within a budget that clearly prevents the filmmakers from exploring its concept more.

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