The great thing about genre is that it offers fans straightforward and familiar material, but it also allows filmmakers the space to come up with new interpretations within established formulae. This is especially true of horror, and the challenge for the filmmaker is to offer scares within the blend of familiarity and innovation. Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside is similar to many examples of what could be called the “curse film,” from “Ringu” and “The Grudge” to “Drag Me to Hell,” “It Follows” and 2022’s “Smile.” There is an initial victim, a protagonist who becomes the latest target, a ticking clock, various strange occurrences that cause the protagonist to question their sanity, an investigation, revelations and confrontations. Optional extras include creepy houses, origin stories of the curse, grisly deaths and jump scares.
It Lives Inside includes many of these tropes and fans of the curse movies noted above will find much to enjoy. Furthermore, Dutta, who co-wrote the script with Ashish Mehta, innovates with the central character’s background. While curse films do come from Japan and Korea, there is a long tradition of white women encountering these horrors, from Naomi Watts to Alison Lohman to Sosie Bacon, sisters of the Final Girl protagonists of many a slasher, from Laurie Strode to Laurie Strode’s granddaughter. It Lives Inside focuses upon Samidha (Megan Suri, “Missing”), the daughter of Indian immigrants to the US, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa, “Criminal”) and Inesh (Vik Sahay, “Captain Marvel”). An Indian protagonist is something different, not simply because of skin color but because Indian folklore is less familiar to western audiences, and the immigrant experience allows for other tensions.
The history of Samidha’s family is expressed efficiently without being heavy-handed. Poorna largely speaks Hindi and expects Samidha to attend traditional events, while her daughter speaks English with no Indian accent, and prefers to go by the name Sam, hang out with (American) friends and spend time with boys, especially Russ (Gage Marsh, “Riceboy Sleeps”). This context also highlights a tension between tradition and modernity, as different generations do not understand each other. The familiar trope of the teenager distanced from her parents is therefore refreshed by this cultural background, and as Sam grows increasingly frantic over something strange happening, her inability to discuss the matter with her parents is a logical extension of that. Sam’s relationships with her school peers also draws attention to the universal experience of feeling different and out of place, but with the added weight of being from an immigrant family and designated as “Other.” This might sound like too specific an experience for general audiences to engage with, but as described by the great film critic Roger Ebert, cinema is a machine for generating empathy. It Lives Inside highlights the feeling of being looked upon as “Other,” in such a way that any audience can get a flavor for this feeling, much like another very different film of 2023, “Joy Ride.”
In case this sounds like a social drama along the lines of “Blinded By The Light,” “Moonlight” or “The Florida Project,” it is important to note that It Lives Inside is also bloody scary. Sam’s former best friend Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) approaches her one day at school with a strange story that Sam dismisses, only to disappear in mysterious circumstances. Sam then starts feeling a presence and spotting an ephemeral figure. This malevolent shadow that appears in closets and mirrors has the right level of uncanniness, humanoid and yet identifiably wrong. Dutta paces the film carefully, drawing the viewer into Sam’s experience as she steadily becomes more fraught and frightened. Uncertainty over possible madness gives way to set pieces with vicious attacks, featuring precise gore which is all the more compelling. Seeing a person literally ripped in two can be more comical than creepy, but the sight of small wounds appearing in a forearm with no visual cause allows the viewer to focus on this injury and wince accordingly, as well as being placed in the character’s frightening position of not knowing what is happening. These sequences ratchet up the suspense and culminate in visceral jump scares, that may lead to gasps and even screams.
As is sometimes the case with these things, once ambiguity gives way to certainty the film becomes less scary, as the explanation into what is happening is a little pat and provides a solution that you can probably see coming. Some possibly overdone flashback editing in the climactic scene signposts the direction. The coda, while effective, has been done better elsewhere. That said, throughout the film the stakes remain high and the central conceit of having to balance the demands of family and tradition with being a contemporary teenager are played out effectively, as the route taken by Sam is interesting as well as arresting. Overall, It Lives Inside offers an effective take on an established formula, encapsulating various social and familial tensions along with some serious terror.