Horror films are uniquely effective at giving tangible shape to our most abstract demons (our fears, traumas, forbidden desires, etc.), and so it often feels somewhat perverse when a genre exercise chooses to subvert its own potential by creating a monster we can’t really see. Dull and disappointing as the actual results might be, Bishal Dutta’s “It Lives Inside” at least has good reason to go with a creature who’s (mostly) shown through sounds and shadows: The ancient Dharmic flesh-eater Pishacha is formed by and feeds off the negative energy of its victims, and visibility itself is the greatest source of that negative energy among the Indian-American high school girls the creature is feasting on when the film begins.
Played by “Never Have I Ever” breakout Megan Suri (who’s far more capable than this movie requires her to be), Samidha is introduced standing in the bathroom of her immigrant parents’ house and shaving the dark hair off her arms. That’s followed by a pre-school Instagram selfie, where her face is lightened by the “Los Angeles” filter, the name of which has never felt more loaded. When her traditionalist mom (Neeru Bajwa as Poona) speaks Hindi to her over breakfast, Samidha — sorry, Sam — responds in unaccented English. No, she will not help cook the prasad. No, she will not wear a dupatta to school. Sam wants to fit in with the rest of the kids in her supposedly vanilla-ass Vancouver suburb (we never get a clear look at the town or its dynamics), and she considers her cultural heritage to be the greatest obstacle towards doing that. How ironic that Sam’s tortured Indianness so completely defines the protagonist of a film that doesn’t bother to give her any other attributes.
In that light, it’s all the more curious that Dutta’s script has little interest in how Sam has been othered since her family came to America for her father’s job; there’s an errant dig at John Winthrop’s homogenous “City on a Hill,” but that’s about it. In part, that’s because Dutta’s script doesn’t do much beyond giving cultural assimilation the most basic of “Babadook” treatments, and in part that’s because Sam’s efforts appear to be paying off.
She’s doing well in school, the cutest boy in her class (a vaguely Bieber-esque Gage Marsh) has a crush on her, and she’s no longer associated with the other Indian girl in her grade (Mohana Krishnan as Tamira), who’s been acting super weird lately. Sam pulled away from their friendship when Tamira refused to act more white, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for reconciliation now that her former BFF — disheveled to the max — is walking around with a bunch of raw meat and a glass jar she claims is home to an evil spirit. A glass jar that she insists she can’t carry alone. A glass jar… that Sam immediately knocks over and shatters all over the locker room floor. Problem solved!
Ugh, but now there’s a Pishacha loose on campus, and it wastes no time snatching Tamira by the hair and locking her in the abandoned basement where she’s meant to stew in her own terror for seven days before the demon finally devours her flesh. That gives Sam a week to find her friend, a task made that much harder by the fact that the Pishacha is very hostile toward anyone who might help its potential victims, or — as the case might be for Sam’s crush, her mom, or even her favorite teacher (“Get Out” star Betty Gabriel) — anyone who might help someone who’s helping its potential victims.
Smart as it is to incorporate a social component into the structure of a horror movie so ostensibly concerned with Sam’s place in her adopted hometown, diffusing the personal burden of her perceived differences across the other people in the community, the actual process of watching the Pishacha stalk these characters is dull and generic in the extreme. A litany of jolt-focused dream sequences do little to escalate the tension or advance the plot, and Dutta — making his feature directorial debut — hasn’t developed a deep enough skill set for the scares to be as specific to his movie as Sam’s fears are to her immigrant experience.
Slathered under the kind of mud-red color palette that’s meant to cultivate atmosphere but instead only serves to suffocate any sense of place or personality, the entire middle section of this movie is wasted on paper-thin characters being attacked by a translucent force. The only thing less satisfying than watching someone get body-slammed by an invisible demon on a swing-set is watching someone else get chased by an invisible demon on a staircase (Dutta has some contrived fun messing around with a mirror and a timed lightswitch, but a long sequence of the Pishacha accosting Betty Gabriel around school highlights the director’s inability to mine fresh scares from ultra-familiar setups). Of course, when we do eventually get a clear look at the monster, it becomes hard hard not to appreciate the discretion that Dutta has shown up to that point; his seeming lack of confidence in the SyFy Channel-esque CGI proves to be a saving grace of sorts, as even the film’s climax keeps its attention focused on Suri’s face as Sam processes the potential horrors of negating her Hindi past.
And yet, Sam’s evolving relationship to her own heritage is given such short shrift that Suri’s close-ups can only be interpreted by virtue of the Kuleshov effect. She and her mom eventually have an overdue and supposedly clarifying heart-to-heart (rendered unhelpful by easily misinterpreted dialogue like “It’s like everything I wanted outside of me is inside of me and I can’t get it out”), but that conversation only seems to confirm a reactionary conservatism that’s rare to find in such a modern take on the immigrant experience. While Dutta inevitably finds a way for Sam to reconcile the two sides of her hybrid identity (and a clever way at that), “It Lives Inside” never lets go of its punitive streak.
If Pishacha is meant to represent Sam’s self-negating aspirations of assimilation, the Hindi past she’s trying to leave behind torments her out of spite and betrayal; if the girl is conflicted about erasing that part of herself, she’s only persuaded to retain it out of guilt. That’s a perfectly valid and unfortunately common dynamic between people and their heritage, which helps to explain why “It Lives Inside” is the rare horror movie that gets valuable mileage out of its very last beat (a classic you think the conflict is resolved, but not so fast! deal), but it’s also at complete odds with the tropes of a barebones genre exercise that is in no way equipped to address the complexity of its defining crisis.
NEON will release “It Lives Inside” in theaters on Friday, September 22.