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It Lives Inside: Film Review

Slowly losing its identity as it runs its course, It Lives Inside fails to provide a chilling and emotional chiller.

The horror genre is so spacious that there’s plenty of room for many unique and personal stories, specifically those that are culture specific. A director’s background enables them to reimagine their story within the genre quite differently from others. Although these types of films don’t arrive constantly, they deserve some time in the spotlight (yes, even when they are disappointing). The most recent example is Bishal Dutta’s feature-length debut, It Lives Inside, which uses Hindu spiritualism to tell a story about demons and possessions that explores themes of identity and faith. While all of this sounds fascinating on paper, unfortunately, it doesn’t lead to a rich and original horror project. The beauty of its culture-specific identity introduced to us in its first act seems lost amidst the clichéd story beats, underdeveloped characters, and dull scares.

The film centers around Samidha (Megan Suri), an Indian-American teenager who, like everyone in the world, wants to fit in with the other kids at her school. She is rejecting the Hindu-based traditions that her mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), has been enforcing on her. Her dad, Inesh (Vik Sahay), gives Samidha more free space to express herself how she wants to – whether she adopts a more Hindu or American-like lifestyle. This introduction paves the way for the culture-specific horrors that arise during It Lives Inside’s runtime. While there are a few quirks with the screenplay regarding the interactions between the characters, Dutta’s directorial expressions are felt when dwelling in the Hindu culture.

Things begin to change for Samidha when her best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), arrives with an overly exhausted look on her face and a dirty jar whose contents we don’t know about. She has not been herself lately, which concerns that potentially cursed item. Of course, Samidha will do anything to help her best friend out, so she speaks a Hindu phrase that keeps the demon away from Tamira’s soul. But, when she thinks everything will be alright, Samidha accidentally breaks the jar – setting free an ancient Indian demonic presence that takes Tamira hostage. Samidha has to come to terms with her heritage and culture before it is too late for Tamira.

loud and clear reviews It Lives Inside film movie 2023 Neon
It Lives Inside (Neon)

There’s plenty to admire and appreciate in It Lives Inside’s narrative, particularly its cultural background: the cultural lens and playfulness regarding the specifics of the horrors lurking in the film. Bishal Dutta and co-writer Ashish Mehta incorporate supernatural entities with religious figures to make this film not only separate itself from the American horror landscape but also shine a light on underrepresented communities.

We saw something similar last year with Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, which blended African mythology with the horror genre to create a story about motherhood and a woman’s immigrant experience. The reason why Nanny stood out amongst horror films that use culture as part of their identity is that it used these aspects to enhance both its story, by making it personal, and the horrors, so that it is effective and piercing on a more pragmatic level. Because of this, Nikyatu Jusu managed to concoct a polished and effective piece about the exclusion from the so-called “American dream” via an unsettling atmosphere.

However, unlike the aforementioned flick, Dutta doesn’t use the element of Hindu spiritualism to its highest potential, instead relying on an array of horror tropes and clichés to an excessive degree, taking you out of the experience that’s slowly building up. A filmmaker can depend on tropes and such as a guide to pave the way for their story. But the issues arise when there’s an overabundance of them, and they’re not used in a way that reinvents the genre or takes the film on an original path. There are many formulaic story beats and scares, almost as if Dutta followed a rulebook for making the most basic and approachable horror film.

At first, It Lives Inside hints at a premise that could potentially show a distinctive horror picture through the lens of an immigrant story. Its first act gives us these glimpses of brilliance by blending the supernatural with the humanistic, all within the lead character’s inner fight with her faith and strict life. Yet, once the jar breaks, both literally and figuratively, and the demon escapes its entrapped location, everything turns into the most clichéd version that it can be, and the initial spark is lost in the process. The main culprits are neither the cinematography nor the performances: those are the two elements that get you slightly interested in what’s happening. The screenplay is what makes this picture get into its trope-filled territory.

While Dutta fails to shift some of his culture’s elements into a palpable form for the horror genre, the underdeveloped and one-note characters cause more significant injury and detachment. They don’t feel like real people: their personalities have no nuance or complexity. You often get the sensation that they are archetypal, fitting the mold of high-school-set coming-of-age stories with some kind of horror element in them. The issue with these archetypes is that, on most occasions, they have some form of identity apart from the cultural backgrounds of their respective characters. When it comes to It Lives Inside, they don’t have any individuality or essence. Even some side characters have nothing to do in the film outside of being a figurative representation of what the lead is trying to combat mentally.

So, which character do you rely on if neither the primary nor the secondary character has a sense of identity? You can’t find some space to connect or empathize with them because there aren’t many human emotions or sensibilities in the story or the characters involved. I really wanted to connect with this story because there have been a couple of recent examples that also failed to do the same. What could have made this film special and unique was placed neatly in the story. But it was let down by the decision to take on the horror genre with already established scares and atmosphere that most fans of the subgenre are quite tired of, especially when a high percentage of them are placed in one project alone.

It Lives Inside will be released in US theaters on September 22, 2023, and in UK cinemas on October 20.

It Lives Inside: Trailer (Neon)
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