Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside begins in a macabre fashion coupled with the eerie piano-laden score from Wesley Hughes. You see the hallway of a dilapidated home and overhear a man chanting a Shanti prayer at something. You can hear a creature, but you can’t see it (one of the strengths the film uses, especially in the first two-thirds). Suddenly, you enter a room and witness the same man become burned alive, and a presence fills a jar like a black mist.
Considering the setup, It Lives Inside could be a conventional horror film of an entity proceeding to stalk its prey until a resolution or counter spell is found to combat it. (In some ways, it does do that). Despite that template, a more uniform story developed by Dutta and Ashish Mehta speaks to the spirit of how intense the pressure can be for an Indian-American family to keep their customs alive while trying to exist in a place that may reject that.
It’s intense for adults, but imagine how it feels for a high school girl. In meeting Samidha (Megan Suri), we are greeted with American pop-rock music as she gets ready – a subtle tell of the struggles to come. Her mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), insists they continue the Hindu offerings and holidays that her family did back home. However, Samidha brushes it off entirely. She would instead like to go by Sam, forgets the lunch Poorna packed for her, and by posting an Instagram selfie, she puts a would-be considered “favorable” filter over it.
She feels considerable pressure to fit in the small suburb where this story occurs. Who could blame her? Besides Joyce (Betty Gabriel), an African-American teacher who tries to look out for Samidha, she has white classmates making flippant comments about her culture and asking her to speak sentences in Hindu for videos. It’s stupid! Samidha used to have a best friend named Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), another Indian American girl she pulled away from because they were singled out because of their heritage. But Tamira has been acting weird lately. She shows up late to class, looks disheveled, and is carrying the same jar that is seen at the beginning of the film.
Besides the stems that Dutta sets up in the story, an equal part of the legwork is left to the Dharmic demon Pishacha, who indiscriminately will attack and kill anybody Samidha encounters once it is free. The best parts of unveiling the monster happen as it basks and waits in the darkness with its glowing eyes. In that respect, cinematographer Matthew Lynn sets the atmosphere to keep you guessing. Some problems arise once the Pishacha starts its reign of terror and physically shows up on the screen. Many of the scary parts result in many previous modes of peril seen before, and the embodiment of the monster itself feels generic as opposed to the foreboding settling the audience is provided.
Dutta’s premise is refreshing, especially in a genre that embraces the stories of other cultures. Samidha has an inherent problem of a force she cannot know how to stop. It kills her budding love interest (the boy next door type Russ, played by Gage Marsh) and has its sights on her at breakneck speed. With that, It Lives Inside relies on quick solutions to complex issues. She gains information due to a brief exposition venture, and as things get more dire, Samidha makes her way back to her mother for the ultimate weapon born out of their rituals.
It’s a neat conclusion for many of the questions It Lives Inside poses and, unfortunately, leaves hanging to the wayside because things need to meet their end in typical fashion. You have an ending left to interpret, but the story does not meet the point of showing you why it’s intriguingly something to consider. It Lives Inside looks at one family’s experience but feels unprepared to commit to the specific things it’s trying to shine a light on.