It begins with your standard shot, a camera tracking through a modest but deteriorated home. In the abode’s hallways are dead, crumpled bodies. Screams can be heard emanating from an ajar door leading to the basement.
We travel down creaky stairs to a body burned so badly that steam is still rising from the charcoaled skin. Its hand is outstretched to a glass jar filled with black smoke. This jar is merely a vessel, a metaphor for the difficulties faced by the Indian inhabitants of this white suburb.
“It Lives Inside,” the feature directorial debut from Bishal Dutta, trades in cultural mythology and rote atmospheric frights to tell the story of Samidha (a captivating Megan Suri). A smart, very popular student Samidha—she goes by Sam—is the kind of typical teenager with an overbearing mom (Neeru Bajwa) and a crush on the popular boy (Gage Marsh) at school common for these films. Her former best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), is well, going through it. Sleep-deprived and talking to herself, she totes the same glass jar we saw earlier.
It’s enough to worry her teacher Joyce (Betty Gabriel), who approaches Sam and asks her to talk with Tamira. Sam, unfortunately, doesn’t want to be associated with the “crazy” Brown person and rebuffs Joyce’s pleas to stick together. She also ignores Tamira’s story about a specter haunting her. Sam doesn’t believe her friend until she accidentally breaks the jar. Tamira mysteriously goes missing; the creepily designed ghoul, composed of tiny teeth, comes to Sam’s dreams and begins attacking others around her. What follows is a movie that wants to be a teen movie and an allegory for the immigrant experience but never wholly coheres.
Many will compare the mechanics of the film’s Pishach monster to “The Babadook.” Both beings demonstrate a desire to isolate their victims and work on their psyche. But the mythical being from Hindu and Buddhist mythology predates Jennifer Kent’s film, speaking to the universality of how loneliness can warp the brain.
The film translates that sense of othering, leading to assimilation, that can happen to Black and Brown people amid a white ecosystem. Sam, for instance, doesn’t want to go by her Indian name; she hangs out with micro-aggressive white kids over Tamira; she rarely speaks Hindi anymore and doesn’t bring anyone over to her home. Those decisions put her at odds with her traditionalist mother, causing your prototypical friction between parents and first-generation Americans to arise.
One wishes Dutta pulled the weight of assimilation further, closer to what Remi Weekes did with “His House,” another horror flick similarly affixed to the immigrant experience. There are some hints that Dutta wants to take that route: We learn how the monster may have origins back in India and that it has passed between multiple Indian families, individuals who also feel isolated. But Dutta is too concerned with fashioning a less-than-successful suburban teen narrative.
courtesy of rogerebert.com
Lack of Realistic Repercussions
Sam wants to fit in, as with any teen, but especially someone afraid of the cultural repercussions that come from being different, for social cache. When one of her teenage friends is murdered in her presence, however, we never see the ramifications for Sam at school. She continues to go to class. For an area suspicious of Brown people, these pearl-clutching white folks certainly aren’t searching for any answers. There’s no police presence, no outreach from the kid’s parents, no confrontation between Sam and literally anybody in this tiny community. It simply makes no sense. If you want to be a teen movie, you must keep viewers in that milieu rather than relying on the basic building blocks cobbled from other, better films.
The visual language restricts the viewer too: While Dutta and cinematographer Matthew Lynn rely on close-ups (granting an immersive touch), they also love copying Spike Lee’s double dolly shot. Rather than waiting for a key moment to unleash it, however, they use the move three times, each less successful in translating the interior angst felt by Sam than the last. Bad match cuts meant to instill horror fall flat, too, as does the basic sound design. The final freakout, a showdown in a basement between Sam and the monster, stretches on for far too long, losing rhythm and pace as Dutta maneuvers for an avenue to a sequel.
Telling an Indian-American horror story, particularly one set in suburbia, should have allowed for plenty of rich opportunities. With major deficiencies like plot, themes, and tension holding Dutta’s film back, “It Lives Inside” is merely average on the outside.
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