It’s probably not because we just lost William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, that possession horror films are having something of a moment – though the hotly anticipated fourth sequel to that series, Exorcist: Believer, is right around the corner. There aren’t many concepts in horror that are more frightening for a lapsed Catholic such as myself, and it perhaps explains why The Exorcist persists in being thought of as the scariest of all films – there’s a way in which possession horror taps into something feral and terrifying buried within us, suggesting an evil that’s beyond understanding invading us entirely. There are plenty of solid possession horrors swirling around out there, but It Lives Inside, at least on paper, offers a compelling, underutilised perspective. Drawing on Hindu mythology, the film introduces audiences to pishacha, flesh-eating demons that exist in Dharmic religions, twisted manifestations of ultimate evil. It Lives Inside marks one of the first times in Western cinema that we’ve had an Indian lead, even an Indian perspective, in horror, and it would seem that the thrilling complexities of this particular creature give It Lives Inside an intriguing edge, maximising the growing openness of Western audiences to more diverse stories.
Megan Suri stars as Sam, an Indian teenager struggling with her culture. At odds with her parents, who try to emphasise the importance of preserving Indian customs and practises, Sam is largely surrounded at school by white faces, many well-meaning but ill-equipped to understand the issues she’s facing. The only other Indian girl at school is Tamira (Mohana Krishnan). Wild-haired and solitary, she is an absolute outsider at the school. Tamira carries a dark secret with her – a jar filled with some black substance that she feeds pieces of raw meat in her room. When she seeks Sam’s help, their confrontation triggers far-reaching consequences when the substance in the jar – our pishach – is released.
First time director Bishal Dutta has a good handle on the conception of this creature, and displays some good instincts in horror direction. The demon pishach is a wily, ruthless manifestation, invisible to those who are not tied to it except for a pair of creepy, glowing eyes not dissimilar to this year’s The Boogeyman. Unfortunately, despite these worthwhile assets, the execution of It Lives Inside’s story leaves much to be desired. The monster is a fairly obvious metaphor for diaspora alienation and Sam’s own struggles with her ethnic identity, but rarely is that rich material mined for insight or uncomfortable observation. Instead, we are treated to fairly rote horror scares – the creature hiding in the wardrobe, the requisite jump-scare fakeouts, the exceptionally bland love-interest who might as well have a ‘marked for death’ sign painted on his forehead. Indeed, for a film whose underlying message argues for embracing and utilising one’s differences of culture, It Lives Inside retreats time and again into disappointing, Western-influenced horror cliches ad-nauseum.
A promising concept and a welcome, fresh cultural perspective on the possession horror genre aren’t enough to save It Lives Inside from rote storytelling and half-baked scares. The debut from Bishal Dutta has its charms, but falls short of the potential this sort of story innately holds within.
Toward the end of It Lives Inside, a far more interesting film begins to click into place, as the monster is finally revealed – featuring some truly gnarly, practical creature design, the film’s finest moment – and the undercurrents that speak to the weighty themes on the film’s mind come to the fore in unexpected and likeable ways. It’s a case of too little too late, though, as what’s come before hasn’t given us enough to hold on to. Without really justifying why we should care about these characters (though Suri is a wide-eyed, magnetic presence) or that we should trust the filmmakers to provide something to chew on as the credits roll, the film is left to peter out, sapped of energy. It Lives Inside is groundbreaking in the sense that the perspective it offers, rooted in personal understanding of the cultural elements at play, is rare and innately refreshing in the horror landscape. It’s a shame that these elements that could’ve made It Lives Inside something special, are left criminally under-deployed.
It Lives Inside
Movie title: It Lives Inside (Dutta, 2023)
Movie description: A promising concept and a welcome, fresh cultural perspective on the possession horror genre aren’t enough to save It Lives Inside from rote storytelling and half-baked scares. The debut from Bishal Dutta has its charms, but falls short of the potential this sort of story innately holds within.
Date published: September 25, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Bishal Dutta
Director(s): Bishal Dutta
Actor(s): Megan Suri, Neeru Bajwa, Mohana Krishnan
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller