It Lives Inside leans too far towards the common suburban-teen narrative to make its point about the otherness experienced by first-generation Americans living between two worlds. That seems like a common problem these days, directors afraid to really lean into what would make their movie shine and set it apart from the rest. I walked out of It Lives Inside thinking, that was a pretty cool movie, I enjoyed that. Now, a couple of weeks later, I barely remember it.
It Lives Inside sets up the horror by bringing the viewer into a somewhat dilapidated old house, bloody corpses strewn along the hallway with screams emanating from the basement where a body appears to be burning from the inside – its still steaming hand reaching towards a jar with black smoke inside.
The story focuses on first generation Indian-American teen Samidhan, Sam to her friends, played by Megan Suri who carries this film on her back because she is the only one with any real character development. Everyone else in the movie plays stereotypes – the doting father working long hours to support his family, the mother so intent on keeping their heritage alive she disapproves of all signs of assimilation in her daughter, the childhood friend she is embarrassed to be associated with, the new plastic girls she’s trying to impress, and of course, the popular pot-smoking boy she has a crush on who isn’t good enough for her. The only other character who isn’t flat is the teacher, Joyce (Betty Gabriel of Get Out) trying too hard to help this student out of some sense of sisterhood (because they’re both women of color?).
It Lives Inside gives horror fans a thrilling new demon to fear.
Ok, the story: Sam’s childhood best friend Tamira, also Indian-American, is not doing so well. She’s missing classes, isolating herself under the bleachers, talking to herself, and she looks disheveled and like she hasn’t slept in weeks. She corners Sam in the locker room while holding this jar and tells Sam there is something evil in it that wants to get out, and she asks for Sam’s help keeping it contained. Sam doesn’t believe her, smashes the jar, and soon enough, Tamira is missing. The M.O. of this creature is isolating its victim and then breaking down their psyche. One of its methods of isolation is to go after anyone who tries to help. Once Tamira is missing, Sam tries to find her, thus “helping” and putting herself in harm’s way.
At this point, Sam doesn’t really have any allies. She has alienated her mother by refusing to use her full name Samidhan, rarely speaks Hindi, and blows off helping her with traditional Indian customs – like cooking for the October holiday Durga Puja which reveres and pays homage (through offerings) to the Hindu goddess Durga. She isn’t assimilated enough into the suburban high school culture as to be part of the “in” crowd. Her best friend (estranged or not) is missing, and she consistently rejects teacher Joyce’s efforts to reach out to her. This is the plight of the first generation American – and this creature feasts on her loneliness. It is only through embracing her roots that she has any hope of surviving, and also saving her friend.
It Lives Inside does give American horror fans a thrilling new demon – the Pishach – which is terrifying in all its psyche destroying, soul eating glory. The movie has some very suspenseful scenes, and while it does skimp on the death toll, it does deliver when it kills. There is a mystery aspect as Sam and her crush investigate what it is that took Tamira and where it could possibly be keeping her. The audience does have to suspend disbelief at the absence of authority figures being concerned with dead and missing teens. If first time director Bishal Dutta had really leaned into the Indian culture at the heart of the film and made it less of a teen movie, it could have been so much more meaningful and memorable. As it stands, it’ll disappear into the zeitgeist of today’s teen-focused horror – or maybe horror has always been teen-focused and I’m just old now.