Between Samuel Bodin’s suitably sinister debut, Cobweb, and Danny and Michael Philippou’s A24 Aussie hit, Talk to Me, it’s been a good few months for first-time horror directors. The latest newcomer hoping to continue this pattern of impressive debuts is Bishal Dutta, the writer-director of new demonic horror, It Lives Inside.
His film follows an Indian-American high school student, Sam (Megan Suri), who, much to the dismay of her traditional immigrant mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), has distanced herself from her Indian heritage. Sam’s cultural assimilation has even caused her to part ways with her childhood bestie Tamira (Mohana Krishnan). Since then, Tamira has become increasingly more unhinged, until one day she tries to confide in Sam about her troubles, which are even more severe than she ever could have imagined. Learning that Tamira is supposedly being haunted by a Pishacha — a flesh-eating demon from Hindu mythology, which she now has trapped in a dingy looking mason jar — Sam must embrace her heritage more directly in an attempt to understand and overcome the evil forces at work.
As the deeply disturbed Tamira, Mohana Krishnan does a superb job of immediately establishing the film’s tangible sense of dread. Her performance is laced with fear, which she conveys through her jittery body language, erratic breathing and blood-curdling screams. Seeing just how deeply this haunting has affected her instils a similar fear in the audience, expertly crafting an especially unnerving atmosphere for the rest of the film to unfold in. And when Megan Suri takes centre stage, she too delivers a commendable performance. She communicates Sam’s adolescent and cultural conflict well, attempting to pull away from her family’s more traditional influence in order to fit in at school. As It Lives Inside progresses and Sam begins to face the Pishacha herself, Suri portrays her subsequent isolation, paranoia and trauma confidently.
Likewise, Dutta demonstrates aplomb in his direction, gradually taunting the audience and his characters with unsettling glimpses of the demonic threat. With the help of cinematographer Matthew Lynn, It Lives Inside boasts some particularly distressing imagery, and Wesley Hughes’ eerie score is a further compliment to these nightmarish visuals. All of this makes for an unquestionably scary cinematic experience. However, it’s a film that benefits greatly, but perhaps relies too heavily, on the imagination of its audience, as it’s often more effective the less it shows.
Dutta’s strong focus on the immigrant experience and Indian heritage dominates his screenplay. In doing so he admirably highlights an underrepresented culture, religion and mythology within the horror genre. With so many different aspects of this culture embedded in his script, he enriches and diversifies the contemporary horror landscape, ultimately presenting a demonic horror through a different, underused lens.
However, other than this unique and welcome angle, his plot is sadly quite generic. While Sam’s familial tensions, borne out of her disrespect for her heritage, are undeniably valid and do feel authentic, they’re not developed enough to create the strong emotional core or gripping hook that It Lives Inside needs to become completely enthralling. Beyond its well-constructed moments of horror and suspense, there’s not enough tying together these smaller, individual successes. Fundamentally, it’s an all too familiar story of possession and hauntings passed from one victim to the next that audiences will have already seen countless times before.
Therefore, in succeeding more in its parts rather than as a whole, this first feature is just not as impressive as some of the year’s other notable horror debuts. Nonetheless, It Lives Inside does introduce a promising new voice in Bishal Dutta, and holds enough horrors within to make it worthwhile. It might even make you think twice the next time you reach for the jam jar.
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Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside is a competent and chilling debut that amplifies an underrepresented culture, but its underwritten script keeps it too contained.
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