Directed by Bishal Dutta
Starring – Megan Suri, Neeru Bajwa, Mohana Krishnan
The Plot – Sam (Suri), an Indian-American teen, lives in an idyllic suburb with her conservative mother and her assimilated father. Sam’s cultural insecurities grow due to her estranged friend, Tamira (Krishnan), who mysteriously carries around an empty mason jar all the time. In a moment of anger, Sam breaks Tamira’s jar and unleashes an ancient Indian demonic force that kidnaps Tamira. Sam searches for Tamira, following the trail of a young man who performed a deadly ritual, until the demonic entity starts targeting her, shattering her reality with terrifying visions. Sam must band together with her parents and a sympathetic teacher to save Tamira and put an end to the terror of the demon.
Rated PG-13 for terror, violent content, bloody images, brief strong language and teen drug use
It has already been a solid year for independent horror films, and while the pile is starting to stack, Dutta’s debut effort seamlessly sets itself apart from the pack, enriching a psychological thriller with an antagonist in Indian folklore that feels ripe for the big screen. On a surface level alone, I love the ferocity and sparsity of the monster, refusing to require a sought after R-rating to ravage its helpless victims, all the while proving less is more in candid depictions of the creature, which helps to maintain its alluring mystique. However, if you dig slightly deeper, the creature is actually a materializing metaphor for Sam, the story’s protagonist, who as an Indian-American teenager seeks to fit in at her American high school, inside of her American town, by leaving behind the heritage that her family spend so much time traditionlizing. In that effect, the demon represents the realities that she can’t run from, especially since her people’s own traditions leave her ripe with vulnerability for the demon’s feast. This is aided immensely from Dutta’s heavily impactful direction, which supplants this thickly unresolving fog over the proceedings, that always feels like the demon is constantly lurking in the shadows. Beyond this, he’s a director who makes the most of his evidential limited budget, with uniquely entrancing editing transitions and atmospherically-integral lighting schemes that maintain the emphasis of this being a nightmare that its helpless victims cannot escape from. This leads to one monumentally breakthrough performance for Megan Suri, who makes up in disheveled heft what she lacks in emotional dexterity. That’s not exactly a backhanded compliment to her, as the film rarely gives her the chance to exercise her range, but she says more in a look or expression than she ever could with a thousand words of dialogue, which evolves her in ways that didn’t seem evident with the way she’s initially presented. Finally, while the film was a bit lacking in the frights department, choosing to saddle itself with a consistency of jump scares throughout, I can gladly express that the jolts that it does attain are earned with set-ups and several red herrings that always kept me guessing. This is where Dutta shows off his greatest capability as a director, persistence, in which he will lose himself and the focus of his narrative on a particular image or object, then force the jolt at the moments we haven’t been trained to expect them by the tired formula of horror movie jump scares. His spontaneity didn’t always get me, but there is one here near the beginning of the film involving a jar that brought feelings of Wes Craven to my delight, proving that “It Lives Inside” is anything but another cheaply rendered, uninspired collection of cheap scares, and instead provides effort for why these overrun instances can work, if garnered creatively.
Without question, the single biggest issue in this film pertains to its script, in which it inspires itself by trying to answer as much as possible in a condensed 94 minute run time. This wouldn’t be a problem if its answers didn’t come forcefully and conveniently from a protagonist who quite literally pulls them out of nowhere, but soon the dialogue becomes overrun with exposition dumps of the obvious variety, which leaves little wiggle room for the demon or its resolution to properly escape from, leaving the third act prematurally defined by the predictability that stems from these not-so-clever instances of seed planting so obvious that you can always bet it will grow something when our protagonist needs it most. This annoyance goes double for the demon itself, whose weaknesses go unconvered one layer at a time, to the point that by the aforementioned third act, it doesn’t feel half as difficult to evade as previously illustrated, which had me wondering why another Indian-American victim stalked by this thing couldn’t of eliminated it. The script is also responsible for the two steps back that it takes towards Dutta’s one step forward of originality, in that it becomes overwhelmed by typical tropes that grew a bit lazy by the film’s midway point. A barrage of fake-out dream sequences and one major plot hole of logical leaping are the causes for concern towards advancing the plot, and soon you’re just kind of expected to go along with it, whether you buy these character motivations and corresponding pocketed conflicts or not.
“It Lives Inside” marks a stunning directorial debut for Bishal Dutta, whose inescapable confinement inside of haunting heritage brings a demonic horror plunge with all of the lore to its legend. Though the film’s cliches start to stack alongside of its conveniences, Dutta silences his own demons with a coming-of-age narrative that continuously gives back, marking this another in the year’s independent horror triumphs.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-