An Indian-American teenager struggling with her cultural identity has a falling out with her former best friend and, in the process, unwittingly releases a demonic entity that grows stronger by feeding on her loneliness.
A bracing cautionary tale about the dangers of assimilation, Bishal Dutta’s “It Lives Inside” draws on Indian culture to create one of the more thoughtful and effective horror films of the year. Though it fails to reach the high bar set by last year’s “Smile,” it’s just as good as the recent “Talk to Me,” addressing timely social issues through the effective use of genre tropes. Deft and subtle, this low-budget affair embraces its threadbare aesthetic, stumbling only at the end when Dutta eschews his stealthy approach for a monster reveal that doesn’t quite work.
Much to her mother’s dismay, Samidha (Megan Suri) has abandoned the traditions and beliefs of her family’s Hindi culture. Much more focused on fitting in with her cliquish American friends, she insists she be referred to as “Sam,” even though some of the girls she hopes to get close to are intrigued by her language and heritage. Her need to fit in is so great that she’s taken to ignoring Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), her longtime best friend. Appearing disheveled, on edge and anti-social, the young lady is doing nothing to help her social standing by carrying around a Mason jar filled with dark murky water.
Dutta sets up his premise quickly and efficiently, intriguing us from the start with the obvious tension that exists between Samidha and her mother as well as the curiosity surrounding Tamira. And upon seeing her feed a piece of raw meat to whatever is in that fragile vessel, you’ll likely be holed as I was.
The screenplay by Ashish Mehta and Dutta does not disappoint. Their story is lean and moves quickly from one odd event to the next, each effectively pulling further into the film’s mystery. We come to learn that a pishach, a demon that feeds on negativity and human flesh, has been trapped in the eerie container Tamira hauls about and he may have something to do with the mysterious death of one of the girls’ classmates from the year before.
Dutta masterfully suggests the presence of the demon throughout with a less-is-more approach. Eerie sound effects, ominous shadows, a blurry reflection, a veiled shape or a brief glimpse of a ragged claw are all he needs to convince us of the monster’s presence and danger. That the filmmaker and Krishnan can make a simple glass jar filled with murky water seem threatening is an impressive, clever feat. Unfortunately, Dutta feels the need to give us a good look at the pishach during the third act, a misstep that breaks the spell, the film’s modest budget and its shortcomings suddenly on full display.
Still, all that precedes this blunder is impressive. The cinematography by Matthew Lynn contributes to a dingy aesthetic that suggests another world present at the edge of ours, one that threatens to extinguish us at every turn. This, combined with the lived-in suburban setting, creates a dim, ragged world that seems ripe for demonic habitation.
While the theme is obvious and the teen rebellion elements of the story come off as a bit worn, the nihilistic mood Dutta and company creates will please aficionados of the genre, as will the film’s conclusion. There’s a bitter irony in store for Samidha. To be sure, the pressure of straddling two social systems and finding the proper balance is difficult and the cost of turning her back on her heritage is high. The life-long commitment she’s forced to bear would tax even the most devout follower. But the fact that she must admit that her mother was right all along, is just rubbing salt in the wound.
3 1/2 Stars